Cuba and Citizen Diplomacy: How Will the Trump Administration Affect Relations with Cuba?

On the eve of Education Beyond Borders: A Faculty-Led Study Abroad Course to Cuba—where students will have the opportunity to witness first-hand how the Cuban legal and political systems function—Professor Jared Carter discusses the implications of the incoming U.S. administration regarding the decades-long trade embargo with Cuba.

Cuba and U.S. Relations Are at a Crossroads

In recent years, we’ve seen a historic shift in U.S. law and policy. A normalization of relations is underway and more Americans are traveling to Cuba than at any time in nearly 60 years. For these reasons alone, it is a fantastic time to visit and study in Cuba.

However, with a new administration taking the reins, Cuba experts have serious legal and policy questions about whether the “thawing” of U.S./Cuba relations will continue. The Trump administration’s posture has moved back and forth between isolation and engagement—both of which will have real impact on the lives of Cubans and Americans. Adding to the uncertainty, Rex Tillerson, the President-elect’s nominee for Secretary of State, recently indicated that the new administration does intend to review President Obama’s policy on Cuba.
In order to understand the future of the legal framework that governs U.S./Cuba relations it is important to first reflect on how we got to where we are today.

The United States Embargo Against Cuba

On a blustery, fall day in 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower decreed that all exports to the island nation of Cuba were prohibited. Less than three weeks later President Kennedy was elected and Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act authorizing Kennedy to expand the embargo to include a ban on all Cuban imports. The story goes that just before banning all Cuban imports, Kennedy sent his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to purchase 1,000 Cuban cigars from the country. And, while Kennedy perhaps had no way of knowing it at the time, that purchase represented one of the last unregulated trades between Cuba and the United States.

Just under 90 miles from the U.S., Cuba’s people, products, arts, and culture have long been virtually off-limits to United States citizens. For this reason, President Obama’s recent announcement that Cuba and the United States will resume normal diplomatic relations under the Vienna Convention is both significant and historic.

Not only did these changes mean that Cuba was removed from the dubious “State Sponsor of Terrorism” list, but it also paved the way for legal travel, trade, and exchange. Before President Obama’s announcement, only those few individuals who held specific licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department were allowed to travel to the island. Under the new regulatory regime, many travelers will no longer have to ask permission from the Treasury Department to visit Cuba.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Legally, we still are not permitted to visit Cuba for vacation—a week at the beach is still illegal under the Trading with the Enemy Act and its associated regulatory regime. However, cultural people-to-people visits and academic travel are now allowed pursuant to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Cuban Asset Control Regulations. The result has been an influx of U.S. travelers and investment.

I’ve been leading academic trips to Cuba for a while now, and many changes are already visible—hotels are full, the restaurant industry is booming, and small-scale entrepreneurs are taking advantage of relaxed Cuban laws that now allow for small businesses and co-ops.

Through engagement we can learn from each other. For example, Cubans can learn from Americans about sustainable development, business law, or private enterprise while teaching us a thing or two about how to feed, house, and provide health care to our entire population at a fraction of our current costs. If both countries continue down the path toward a free exchange of ideas and information, it can have a real impact—economically and socially.

To be sure, this historic change in law and policy will face roadblocks along the way. There will be legal setbacks and political false starts, and at times progress will be clouded by the uncertainty of politics. However, by engaging in citizen-to-citizen diplomacy—no matter who is the President—I’ve found that travelers to Cuba invariably return home with the unmistakable conviction that we are more alike than we are different.

And that’s good policy.

Education Beyond Borders: A Faculty-Led Study Abroad Course to Cuba

This course provides an introduction to the law and legal system of Cuba. Through an intensive ten-day study-abroad experience in Havana, Cuba, students will attend lectures and seminars led by Colleges of Law faculty and faculty from the University of Havana School of Law, visit municipal courts, engage with Cuban law students, and visit the Cuban national bar association.