Over the past few weeks, there's been no shortage of voices warning how detrimental a rollback of the current US policy toward Cuba would be. When President Trump took the podium to announce the rollback today, many breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing changes less drastic than they had feared. That relief may be misplaced.
More damaging than the specific policy shifts is the fact that we're backpedaling on engagement at all. Just as the tiny island carries an outsized significance, so, too, will our newly announced approach. Today in Miami, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly convened leaders from Latin America—as partners—to work together on solutions to problems in Central America. It’s unfortunate that, less than ten miles away, a unilateral announcement on Cuba was allowed to undermine that sense of regional partnership.
Cuba, or more specifically the US-Cuba relationship, has long been a prickly issue in Latin America. Until 2015, the United States was the only country in the hemisphere to not have diplomatic relations with the island, and even our limited rapprochement with Havana has since had a powerful effect on our relations throughout the region.
US isolation of Cuba elicited varied responses from Latin American leaders over the years, ranging from vehement condemnation from the left to more reticent disapproval from the center and center-right. But when the US and Cuba held their first top-level meeting at the 2015 Summit of the Americas, the praise from the region's heads of state was unanimous and emphatic, a testament to how long resentment over the issue had been bubbling under the surface.
"Everybody south of the Rio Grande has appreciated this tremendous step," said Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, "and is very enthusiastic about what this is going to mean for the future of our relations."
And indeed, our overtures toward ending one of the last remaining vestiges of Cold War enmity shifted the tenor of hemispheric relations. US actions in Latin America in the 20th century created a sort of residual suspicion toward Washington, one that spanned much of the political spectrum. Normalizing relations with Cuba allowed us to signal to the region that we were ready for a new era of forward-looking partnership.
Not long after, to drive home the symbolism, Colombian government officials and FARC representatives were joined in Havana by the US’ top diplomat to negotiate an end to the hemisphere's longest-running war. The significance of the trip was lost on no one. That encounter, unthinkable due to both its participants and its location, served as the US’ strongest acknowledgment to date that Cuba policy was inextricable from greater Latin American policy. Needless to say, it was well received throughout the region.
If there's one thing to take away from Latin America’s reaction to our first steps in normalizing relations with Cuba, it's that significance was more important than substance. Washington reopened an embassy and relaxed some travel and commercial restrictions, but the embargo remained in place and the United States didn't cease its calls for political change on the island. What truly mattered for our Latin American partners wasn't the extent to which we changed tack on Cuba, but rather the fact that we did so at all.
That's precisely why today's announcement should worry us. Trump may not have reversed the current policy entirely, but he didn't need to. Regrettably, with regard to our relations with the hemisphere, the significance of this new policy once again matters more than the substance.
And the timing could not be worse. A confluence of factors has already put our newfound leadership in Latin America on thin ice. Hostile rhetoric has sparked a wave of anti-American sentiment reminiscent of decades past, afflicting even our staunchest allies. Withdrawal from global trade has commercial partners in the hemisphere increasingly turning their sights elsewhere. And all this comes as China aggressively ramps up its engagement with the region.
Latin America's future is a bright one, with economies maturing rapidly, citizens becoming more educated and workers more skilled. Recognizing the region's enormous potential, Beijing is playing the long game, strengthening its foothold now to reap dividends in the future. With the mistrust we sewed today, there's no doubt that we've relinquished some of our stake in that future.
Of course, all this talk of significance is not to say that the substance of this new policy won't also be harmful. New travel and commercial restrictions will curtail a major source of revenue for the island's nascent private sector. The reduced flow of American tourists will hinder the interpersonal diplomacy that was introducing a growing number of Cubans to liberal ideals. Limitations on investment and trade will strip opportunities from US companies and the workers they employ. And opening the door for greater Russian influence presents bleak prospects for improving human rights conditions.
There's no question that the United States took a step backwards today. But to get a sense of just how far backwards, we need to look beyond Cuba's borders. At a time of tumult and isolation around the world, Latin America is betting on stability and integration. As the region sets about to unlock its potential, we'd do well to position ourselves as a reliable partner. Today, unfortunately, we did just the opposite.
*Jason Marczak is Director of the Latin America Economic Growth Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center and is on Twitter @JMarczak.