On 17 April 1961, 1,400 Cuban exiles launched an amphibious invasion of their homeland. Directed by the US military, their plan was to land at Girón Beach, at the mouth of the Bay of Pigs. Blessed with dense vegetation, crocodile-infested swamps and only one connecting road, they could hardly have chosen a worse spot. Needless to say, what followed was one of the most calamitous moments in American history.
Last week, on the fifty-eighth anniversary of the attempted invasion, the US government announced two significant changes to its Cuba policy. The first reduces the maximum quarterly remittance Cuban-Americans can send to Cuba; and the second enforces sanctions against those dealing in assets seized from Americans after the 1959 revolution.
Trump’s plan is not as disastrous as the Bay of Pigs. But, on the anniversary of the fiasco, the US has made another major blunder.
Remittances have surged since President Obama began normalising relations with Cuba in 2014. After Wednesday’s pronouncement, these will be subject to a fifty percent reduction. Cuba-bound remittances from the US will be capped at $1,000 per person per quarter.
The US government sees these remittances as little more than American taxpayers relieving the burden on Cuba’s communist state. With fewer sources of income (and access to hard currency), so the argument goes, the Cuban economical model will implode, eventually leading to some form of political change.
This is a serious miscalculation. The reduction of the allowance will not lead to democratisation but will instead stymie the Cuban private sector, which is arguably the principal agent of change. Since taking over the presidency in 2008, Raúl Castro opened the economy to some private business. These businesses, often related to the tourist industry (for example B&Bs, taxis and restaurants), have caused headaches for traditionalist Communist Party grandees, who fear a population more in touch with the outside world.
Having tasted the forbidden fruit, Cubans, particularly the younger ones, long for the lifestyles they see on their social media feeds. They question Cuba’s form of government and seek greater freedoms. Remittances deliver the cash for would-be Cuban entrepreneurs and even provide the island with a dose of President Trump’s beloved capitalism. At the same time, they erode many Cubans’ reliance on the government. What could possibly be more in Washington’s interest?
The second policy change is that the US will apply Title III of the Helms–Burton Act, which came into effect in 1996 but has never been enforced. Title III asserts the rights of Americans to assets they owned in Cuba before the revolution that were expropriated after Castro came to power. The State Department has said there are currently about 6,000 such claims, with a value estimated at $8bn. State Department officials are also expecting new ones, possibly taking the total number to 20,000.
According to John Bolton, Trump’s National Security Adviser, who outlined the implementation of Title III on Wednesday in a speech in Miami, “Americans who have had their private and hard-earned property stolen in Cuba will finally be allowed to sue.”
But enforcement of Title III also has the potential to lead to uncertain and messy arbitration with allies such as the European Union and Canada, who have invested in Cuba and will now be subject to sanctions.
Evoking the Bay of Pigs, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez described the application of sanctions as a violation of international law, adding: “Aggressive escalation by the US against Cuba will fail. Like at Girón, we will be victorious.”
Claims under Title III are particularly important to the community of Cuban Americans living in south Florida, a group that have enormous political influence in US elections. For Trump, enforcing Title III is not so much a foreign policy decision as a domestic one. Cuban Americans around Miami may pave the way for re-election in 2020.
If that goes some way to explaining Trump’s reasoning, a more detailed examination suggests a contradiction. Although a hard-line stance against the Cuban regime plays well electorally, by isolating Cuba from foreign investment and thus thwarting the private sector, Trump is hindering the development of the conditions that are most likely to lead to the outcome he and the anti-Castro lobby desire.
Instead of crippling the Cuban economy and unseating the communists, for over half a century the US embargo has legitimised the government and provided an easy excuse for everything from food shortages to the slow pace of rural industrialisation. In his 1997 memoir, Memories of a Cuban Soldier, Dariel Alarcón, once a high-ranking official in Castro’s government, claimed that the embargo was what kept Castro in power for so long.
If the rationale for imposing limits on remittances and implementing Title III were not hazy enough, then Trump’s aggression towards Cuba has other important ramifications across Latin America – most significantly in Venezuela, where a few months ago it looked as though Trump might be on course for a major foreign policy success.
Last year Bolton grouped Cuba and Venezuela (together with Nicaragua) in what he called “a troika of tyranny.” The Trump administration seems to think that by hitting Venezuela’s ally, Cuba, they can undermine Nicolás Maduro’s grip on power in Caracas. But Cuba’s provision for Venezuela is diplomatic and, allegedly, in military matters and intelligence. It is not financial. Neither reducing remittances nor implementing Title III will further the likelihood of peaceful transition in Venezuela. And given Trump’s alienation of the EU and Canada over Title III, the US is needlessly frustrating allies who will have a role in any resolution of the Venezuela crisis.
Blind adherence to an ideological position over Cuba is binding Trump and Bolton to policy that is strategically defunct and firmly against their own interests. The American strategy is almost as bad as in 1961.