In an escalation of hostilities toward Cuba that is rapidly dismantling the Obama era détente, the Trump administration on Tuesday expelled 15 Cuban diplomats. The administration has also sharply drawn down the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Havana. The administration argues that the Cuban government has failed to provide safety to U.S. diplomats, 22 of whom fell victim in a mysterious rash of illnesses, even as the precise causes and perpetrators have yet to be identified. The U.S. government does not accuse the Cuban government for the unexplained illnesses.
A State Department travel advisory preceded the diplomatic expulsions, warning Americans against going to Cuba, although not one visitor has been affected by these illnesses. This extraordinary measure will undermine the island’s fastest growing source of foreign exchange earnings. Many of our professional diplomats, both those stationed in Havana and those at the State Department, oppose the dramatic downsizing of the U.S. and Cuban missions. While all are concerned for the safety of U.S. personnel, the health incidents seem to be in sharp decline. The U.S. diplomats in Havana are proud of the gains in advancing U.S. interests in Cuba, and they wish to continue to protect and promote them.
These punitive measures are about much more than protecting U.S. citizens. Rather, this White House and its pro-embargo allies in Congress have opportunistically seized on these mysterious illnesses affecting U.S. diplomats to overturn the pro-normalization policies of a previous administration, using bureaucratic obstruction and reckless language when they cannot make the case for policy change on the merits alone.
By taking these precipitous actions, this White House is doing exactly what our adversaries in the region seek to provoke. Overt U.S. hostility empowers anti-American hardliners in the Cuban regime opposed to stronger bilateral relations between the two countries. In addition, American travel to Cuba benefits the privately-operated segments of the Cuban tourism sector, and strengthens the emerging Cuban middle class. The travel advisory will harm these progressive segments of Cuban society.
Furthermore, a breakdown in U.S.-Cuban relations allows Russia, China, Iran and Venezuela to deepen their influence in Cuba and the broader Caribbean Basin. By pushing Cuba away, the U.S. is pushing it towards other actors whose interests are not aligned with our own. The Trump administration’s ill-considered actions towards Cuba are part of a broader pattern of disrespect for U.S. diplomacy from this White House, apparently without careful consideration of the geopolitical consequences. From attacking the deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions to provoking a nuclear North Korea to attacking the NAFTA trade accord with America’s two largest trade partners, Mexico and Canada, the Trump White House has steadily diminished U.S. influence and credibility abroad.
Our partners in Latin America welcomed the change in U.S. policy towards Cuba in 2014 as a sign that the Cold War had finally ended in the Western Hemisphere. The administration’s retreat from the opening towards Cuba alarms our friends in the Americas and calls into question the enduring value of U.S. commitments, much as belligerent statements toward Iran and North Korea harm our credibility with our allies in Europe and Asia. This pattern of reckless animus towards diplomacy comes at a cost to the international reputation of the U.S. with no apparent gain for our interests abroad.
There might have been an opportunity for creative diplomacy in this latest crisis. The Cuban government has been unusually collaborative with the U.S. in investigating these incidents involving U.S. diplomats. Cuba has allowed the FBI to operate independently in Cuba for the first time in more than 50 years, a signal of the importance that President Raul Castro assigns to improved relations with the U.S. But this White House seems bound and determined to continue down the path of obstruction, despite the costs. U.S. hostility risks damaging the coming transition to a new Cuban government after President Raul Castro steps down in early 2018 by strengthening the hand of anti-American hardliners who oppose further economic opening on the island.
It damages Cuban-Americans and their families by impeding travel and the flow of funding associated with their visits, and those of other American visitors, which have allowed the Cuban private sector to gain traction. It also damages U.S. relations with our partners in the region, who have long criticized what they see as senseless hostility between the U.S. and Cuba. And finally, the Trump administration’s approach serves to widen the door to U.S. geopolitical adversaries, such as Russia and Venezuela, to advance their interests in Cuba and in the region.
Harold Trinkunas is deputy director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Richard Feinberg is a professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California San Diego and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is author of “Open for Business: Building the New Cuban Economy.”