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President Trump’s Cuba speech in Miami was a surreal affair. Long-suffering, freedom-loving Cuban exiles and dissidents were pinning their tattered hopes on a man known to have voiced admiration for authoritarian rulers such as Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, and Rodrigo Duterte. The irony could not have been more painfully exquisite. “...I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” declared Trump with much fanfare. “…Our new policy begins with strictly enforcing U.S. law.”
The reality is different. Trump’s measures ostensibly tighten travel restrictions curbing flagrant, unlawful tourism, and prohibit business transactions with Castros’ military, which controls 60% or more of the Cuban economy. Pressuring political change and depriving the regime of funds used to repress Cubans was the intended aim; however, upon closer inspection, inconsistencies emerge. Under the new restrictions, U.S. visitors to Cuba will be required to join tour groups. Tour groups customarily utilize state facilities that funnel currency to the military. Whether or not the tour operators make the necessary adaptations and sever their financial ties with the regime remains to be seen. Aligning the Cuba policy with current U.S. laws requires eliminating all forms of tourism, including group excursions, thereby removing ambiguity.
Pro-engagement advocates opposed to Trump’s measures claim Cuba’s self-employed will be hurt, while anti-Castro forces believe the measures will empower small business owners rather than harm them. Both groups fail to realize that foreign tourism and commerce has never brought freedom to totalitarian nations. They also fail to grasp that private ownership in Cuba is nonexistent despite the regime’s narrative. Neither position takes into account the suffocating crony state capitalism that prevents the growth of a true private sector. “There is a dreadful incongruity to the new legislative stew,” writes Cuban journalist Iván García. “While the island’s ruling military junta grants approval and legal status to private businesses, it also uses a range of prohibitions to limit their growth and to prevent them from prospering or making money.”
The regime's punitive actions do not indicate legalization of private entrepreneurship within Cuban society. In theory, the regime’s convoluted edicts acknowledge the presence of the self-employed. In practice, cuentapropistas are hounded, hauled off to jail, fined, and properties appropriated. So-called businesses, without codified rights, cannot function or flourish in an environment of oppressive instability, and the regime knows it. Ultimately, the dictatorship siphons the vast majority of small business earnings through exorbitant taxes, bribes, or outright theft. In fear of losing total control and revenue, the regime recently stopped issuing business permits altogether.
Under Trump’s Cuba policy, laws continue to be violated. “I regret that he did not go further in adopting the changes to Obama’s misbegotten actions I and a number of former State Department colleagues advocated earlier this year — namely, to bring U.S. policy into line with existing U.S. law — the Cuba Democracy Act and the Cuba Liberty and Democracy Restoration Act,” said previous U.S. ambassador Everett E. Briggs. “Exempting Cuban ports and airports from the prohibition on dealing with Cuba is a mistake.” Adhering to the strict letter of the law, as Trump states, implies enforcing the requirements of current legislation and honoring the Cuban Adjustment Act, which protects political refugees fleeing oppression. Conveniently forgotten by the Trump administration were the thousands of Cubans left stranded throughout Latin America, by Obama’s executive order, suffering physical and emotional hardship.
Trump’s policy reveals additional shortfalls. U.S. businesses such as Marriott and Google can pursue their dealings with the Castro regime without penalty in breach of U.S. statutes. The regime has yet to provide restitution for stolen properties, U.S. fugitives remain unmolested in the gulag paradise, and Cuba’s reinstatement as a terrorist sponsoring nation has been sidelined. The dictatorship's role in the collapse of democracy in Venezuela is indisputable, but worldwide condemnation has been feeble or entirely absent. It appears the Castros have nothing to fear from Trump. They have plenty of global accomplices replenishing their treasury and feeding their tyranny.
Cubans desire liberty no less than the citizens of former communist nations under Soviet rule. Freedom hinges on international support for the embargo, rigorous enforcement of current U.S. laws, vociferous assistance for the island’s pro-democracy activists, and the politicization of the populace. Anti-Castro bravado, without legislative bite, will yield minimal transformative results. For now, world powers obscenely collude with the repressive dictatorship while enslaved Cubans reap the bitter harvest.