President Trump’s reversal of President Obama’s trade policy with Cuba infuriated almost every mainstream media outlet when he announced it in Miami on Friday. Journalists bemoaned the impact that these changes could have on the island state, and highlighted some of the entrepreneurs who are benefiting from the American tourist dollars that have poured into the Cuban economy.
This portrayal of Cuba is a misleading one at best.
While more money is flooding into the Cuban economy, much of it is going directly to the state. Obama might have “awakened the hope of entrepreneurs,” as one Havana restaurateur told Business Insider, but this hope can be quickly crushed at the whim of the Cuban government, just as it was during and after the Cuban Revolution several decades ago.
President Trump noted on Friday that the previous administration’s “easing of restrictions of travel and trade does not help the Cuban people” but rather serves to “enrich the regime.” White House officials later added that Trump would lay out “very specific benchmarks” for the Cuban government to meet before they negotiate again with the US on trade.
Trump’s policy primarily targets GAESA, the Cuban military’s business and commerce wing, which is run by Gen. Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, who just so happens to be Raul Castro’s son-in-law.
GAESA runs hotels under some of the major hotel brands in Cuba, including the Four Points by Sheraton Havana. It also controls about 80 percent of Cuba’s tourism economy and 60 percent of the island’s total economy, according to the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. After Obama’s Cuban deal, non-Cuban American visitors to the island rose 74 percent in 2016, making up 615,000 of the island’s 4 million visitors.
This means that for the last 30 months, Obama’s flawed policies have directly supported the Castro regime and further bolstered its police state.
As Trump declared in his speech, Obama’s deal was one-sided and didn’t require any change of behavior from the regime. The frequency of arrests of dissidents and human rights violations only increased after Obama opened up trade with Cuba. Guillermo Fariñas, a Santa Clara dissident who was arrested about 18 times in 2015 alone, observed that since relations with the US were restored, “beatings,” “threats,” “impunity” and aggressiveness have all become more common. In the first two months of 2015, there were more than 2,500 short-term detentions for political reasons.
Amidst all of this, the only hope for a free Cuba lies in its millennials, who have heard the brutal details of the Cuban Revolution from their parents and grandparents. Trump’s bold rhetoric and actions will put the Cuban government in a weaker place, both economically and symbolically, and embolden those millennials who have the courage to demand freedom from their government.
The Castro regime recognizes that it needs the support of young people – los jóvenes. Raul Castro mentioned them several times in the eulogy he gave for his brother Fidel Castro as he attempted to draw attention away from the elephant in the room: the fact that most of communist Cuba is still run by much older people – los históricos – who have resisted any major reforms. By now, young people realize that the people in charge are not going to give them the freedom they desire, and they are frustrated.
Unsurprisingly, even the millennials who support the regime also support significant reform efforts.
“We have to change. We have to evolve,” says Kariel González, a 35-year-old accounting professor at the University of Havana who support the revolution. “Many young people here in Cuba…they want to have a new, fresh revolution: freedom to speak freely, freedom to gather, the freedom of business, especially for the entrepreneurs — and access to the internet. But they’re not allowed. The historical leaders are paralyzing the process.”
Cuban millennials ultimately want what American millennials want. As noted in Foreign Policy Magazine, they “want to look good, to have fun, and to be able to have the freedom to pursue grander ambitions — financial and otherwise.”
Trump’s action is the first step in making this possible.