In March 2016, Havana was electric in anticipation of President Obama’s historic visit. Cuba was awash with a spirit of hope that relations between our two countries were finally on a path toward normal. Now, the Trump administration has released new, restrictive travel rules for Cuba — and yet, with two years of progress under our belt, it is clear a full reversal is impossible.
Last March, the reception the Cuban government afforded me and the throngs of U.S. government officials tending to President Obama’s trip preparation showed the seriousness with which they took the visit; the Cuban government dedicated significant resources in terms of manpower and infrastructure to set it up for success. They seemed pleased, albeit cautious, to welcome those U.S. officials willing to do the hard work to improve relations.
In the months leading up to and following President Obama’s visit, the U.S. and Cuban governments moved quickly to advance normalization, meeting regularly to negotiate and sign nearly two dozen agreements on issues such as law enforcement information sharing and environmental protection. Most importantly, the two governments proved that cooperation is possible and can bear fruit.
In June of this year, I was in Havana again when President Trump announced he was “cancelling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” appealing to a crowd in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood who cheered the president’s rhetoric reminiscent of decades past.
The Cuban government response was fairly measured — an official statement “denounce(d) the new measures to tighten the blockade” as “doomed to failure,” but reiterated the country’s “willingness to continue the respectful dialogue and cooperation in areas of mutual interest.”
Among the country’s people, however, I saw a range of emotions. Anger, at the U.S. president’s harsh words and demeanor; frustration, that the president’s remarks and policy directives were based on a false interpretation of the Cuba of today; fear, among the entrepreneurs whose livelihoods depend on U.S.-Cuba engagement; and sadness, among a populace who previously thought that the embargo, which has defined and constrained their lives for decades, was finally nearing its end.
But most profound was bitterness that they, the Cuban people, would remain pawns in the U.S. domestic political debate.
Now, fulfilling the promises of President Trump’s June announcement, the administration has implemented regulatory changes to roll back U.S. engagement with Cuba. The changes will come amid a difficult bilateral context, one made all the more confusing by mysterious symptoms experienced by U.S. diplomats. The U.S. government’s politicized response to the symptoms, expelling Cuban diplomats during an ongoing investigation and halting consular services in Havana, further muddies the waters.
Yet despite a difficult bilateral context, formal and informal engagement continues. The U.S. and Cuba held their sixth bilateral commission, an exchange between foreign ministries to advance engagement, less than two months ago.
U.S. travelers continue to flock to the island. By the end of May 2017, the number of U.S. travelers to Cuba had reached almost 285,000, surpassing the total the entire 2016 calendar year. Today’s new travel rules will still allow legal avenues for travel to Cuba.
While detractors would try to thwart normalization efforts, our governments and our peoples can still choose to engage. If not, it’s the lives of the Cuban people that are most evidently altered by the ebbs and flows in Washington, and — at minimum — they deserve a U.S. policy that allows them to be the determinants of their own future.
Emily Mendrala is a former National Security Council and State Department official in the Obama administration. She is now the executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas where she promotes U.S. policies of engagement toward Cuba.