Just two weeks before the 2016 election, Donald Trump traveled to Miami to accept the endorsement of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association. Speaking at a museum in Little Havana dedicated to the paramilitary invasion, he blasted the Obama administration’s normalization of relations with Cuba and lauded those he called “true freedom fighters” in the audience. His efforts to pander to the hard-line Cuban American community seemed a long shot; Trump trailed Hillary Clinton by 3.3 points in the Florida polls, and news reports at the time indicated he was exploring investments in the hotel industry in Cuba. But on November 8, Trump won the state and its critical 29 Electoral College votes by a narrow margin of 1.2 points, paving his way to the White House.
With Florida once again a crucial swing state, it comes as no surprise that Trump has reached out, once again, to the invasion veterans. On September 23, he invited some two dozen aged members of the 2506 Brigade—the name of the CIA-led invasion force—to the White House to hear the candidate they have again endorsed promise that his administration would “very soon” rid the hemisphere of the Cuban revolution. “I canceled the Obama-Biden sellout to the Castro regime,” Trump reminded the vets as he took the opportunity to level new sanctions on Cuba. “I am announcing that the Treasury Department will prohibit US travelers from staying at properties owned by the Cuban government. We’re also further restricting the importation of Cuban alcohol and Cuban tobacco.”
Trump is certainly not the first incumbent to troll for Cuban American votes in a bid for reelection; the cynical use of Cuba policy as a form of political patronage has been a staple of almost every US presidential campaign since the 1959 revolution. But to advance his presidential prospects, Trump is now sacrificing fundamental rights of US citizens—the freedom to pick their places of lodging when they travel; attend the music, book, or cigar festivals of their choice; and purchase the souvenirs they want to bring home—on the altar of electoral politics. At the same time, he is squeezing Cuba’s economy in a cruel and malicious attempt to starve its citizens, as the island nation, like so many other countries, desperately struggles to recover from the costly Covid-19 pandemic.
In the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro famously nationalized the tourist industry, at the time dominated by American mobsters such as Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, and Santo Trafficante. Since then, the Cuban state has maintained full or majority ownership in Cuba’s hotels, rendering all of them off-limits to US citizens under Trump’s new sanctions. But to assure that US citizens can easily identify the locations disallowed by their own government, on September 23 the State Department issued a “Cuba Prohibited Accommodations List.” The list contains the names and addresses of 433 places of lodging, among them some of the most iconic places in the tourism business—the Hotel Nacional, the Riviera, the Melia Cohiba, and the Capri. The list also identifies dozens of smaller boutique hotels and even private homes (casitas) that the US government has determined belong to current or former Cuban government officials or their relatives and are, therefore, “prohibited.”
To be sure, US travelers can still legally visit Cuba and can still stay at many other private homes across the island, more than 36,000 of which are easily accessed through Airbnb. But the new prohibitions on hotel lodgings create considerable obstacles for larger delegations and groups that travel to Cuba for educational tours such as those led by National Geographic, Road Scholar, and The Nation magazine. Trump’s sanctions will also inhibit US citizens from traveling to the island to organize, participate in, or attend professional meetings and events such as music and film festivals and sports competitions. Under the Obama administration, travel to Cuba for those purposes was conducted under a general license. Now, travelers will have to apply for a specific license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control—an onerous process that empowers administration officials to provide travel permission on a case-by-case basis.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo justified the crackdown on travel as an effort to “deprive the Cuban regime of the resources it uses to oppress the Cuban people.” But the sanctions will directly penalize whole sectors of hospitality workers—taxi drivers, guides, musicians, waiters, maids, busboys, and cooks among them—whose livelihoods, and families, depend on the influx of US visitors and the generous tips they leave behind. Moreover, a significant reduction in the approximately 1 million US travelers who have annually visited the island after the Obama administration adopted its “positive engagement” policy will undercut the entire Cuban private sector, which has dramatically expanded as the tourist traffic has grown. “It’s sickening to hear Trump and the likes of Senator Marco Rubio present this move as intended to benefit the Cuban people,” says Christopher Baker, a veteran travel guide who regularly leads photography, motorcycle, and educational tours to Cuba. “The reality is that this is as beneficial to the Cuban people as a slap in the face.”
With Cuba’s tourism trade all but shut down to combat the pandemic, these new sanctions will have little significance for the foreseeable future. “Trump’s October sanctions are obviously timed to influence Cuban American voters in Florida,” points out American University scholar William LeoGrande, “but as long as the pandemic is preventing travel to Cuba, their impact is more symbolic than substantial.” Trump appeared mindful of that fact as he addressed the Bay of Pigs veterans. “A lot of things are going on right now that I can’t tell you about, but I will be soon,” he told them, hinting at more sanctions to come before the election.
Already, the administration has acted on the president’s promise. On September 28, Secretary Pompeo announced that the State Department’s “Cuba Restricted List”—yet another prohibition list that identifies Cuban businesses off-limits to US citizens and companies—would be expanded to include a Cuban debit card company called American International Services. For many Cubans struggling to survive during the pandemic, the AIS debit card has become an indispensable financial lifeline, allowing them to receive remittances from US relatives that can then be directly spent, using the AIS card, at special dollar stores to purchase food, appliances, and other goods in Cuba.
The move is just the latest, but unlikely the last, administration attack on an estimated $3.7 billion in annual remittances from Cuban Americans to their relatives—a flow of funds that has underwritten the growth of the Cuban private sector and sustained hundreds of thousands of Cubans as the pandemic has created the worst economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union. With Cuba’s airports still closed, preventing remittances from being hand-carried to the island, the State Department’s new restrictions leave Cuban Americans with few options to provide humanitarian relief to their relatives—a cutoff that will have dire repercussions for the lives and livelihoods of countless Cuban families. “We unequivocally denounce the Trump administration’s decision on Monday to erect yet another obstacle for those sending remittances to family members in Cuba,” seven leading policy and advocacy groups, among them the Center for Democracy in the Americas, the Cuba Study Group, the Washington Office on Latin America, and Cuba Educational Travel, stated last week. “Prohibiting family members from supporting one another amid a pandemic and food shortage in Cuba, and closing remittance channels without securing a viable alternative, is cruel and runs contrary to American values.”
As the election approaches, President Trump is gambling that his policy of pain toward Cuba will turn out enough hard-liners to outnumber the Cuban Americans turned off by the suffering he has brought to their loved ones on the island. The political appeal of his administration’s punitive policies will certainly be addressed if Trump and Joe Biden hold the second presidential debate—a town-hall-style gathering with questions from the audience, now scheduled for October 15—in Miami. (Depending on the president’s progress in recovering from his coronavirus infection, the debate will likely be reconfigured as a virtual meeting or postponed—although only a day after leaving Walter Reed hospital, Trump tweeted, “I am looking forward to the debate on the evening of Thursday, October 15th in Miami. It will be great!”)
Biden will come prepared to argue that the Obama administration’s history-making effort to normalize relations with Cuba, which included opening the door to travel and lifting all restrictions on remittances, significantly advanced both US interests and the interests of the Cuban people. He will remind Florida’s Cuban American community that Obama’s engagement policy facilitated their access to, and support for, their families on the island—in clear contrast to Trump’s policies, which have blocked both travel and remittances and are designed to separate families and impoverish the Cuban populace.
But Trump will likely resort to the bluster and blarney he shared with the 2506 Brigade veterans at the White House when he compared the Bay of Pigs invasion to his efforts to win reelection. “We will honor your courage with my administration’s determination to defeat communism and socialism. And we will do that in our country too. We’re in the process of doing it right now,” he told them, “and we are meeting it with great force.”
It will be left to voters to remind the president of who won and who lost at the Bay of Pigs, and that the invasion remains not only an internationally repudiated episode of US aggression but also a dramatic symbol of its abject failure.