Two years ago, President Barack Obama opened a new chapter in U.S./Cuba relations. He announced that the two countries would move forward into a new era of peaceful coexistence, and lessened restrictions on American travel to Cuba.
Considered one of the administrations’ signature achievements, Obama and Cuba President Raúl Castro ended decades of estrangement, vowing to move toward normal bilateral ties in December 2014.
Now, as President Obama enters his final days in the Oval Office, many travelers wonder how Donald Trump’s Presidency will impact travel to Cuba. From the threatening statements released by incoming leadership thus far, it’s clear that the Trump administration has its sights set on dismantling many of Obama’s legacy achievements.
Whether or not the unpredictable Trump will follow through on his threats to roll back Obama’s progress in Cuba remains to be seen. But here’s an overview of where things stand, including statements made on (and off) the campaign trail by Trump’s team regarding U.S./Cuba relations.
Prior to announcing his candidacy for the 2016 Presidential Election, Donald Trump appeared to be cautious, yet curious about Cuba and its potential for expanding his hotel and casino holdings. With business ties throughout the world, it’s likely that Trump and his development team considered what, if any, opportunities there might be to break into the Cuban market.
According to news reports throughout the campaign, Trump even sent secret emissaries to scout opportunities for expansion in Havana in the 1990s. But any action appears to have been halted in the early exploratory phase.
In general, Donald Trump seemed open to the idea of forming a business relationship with Cuba, if the right opportunity arose. Given his prior actions as a hotelier, it’d be logical to assume Trump would be supportive of renewed U.S./Cuban ties. Especially if they would allow the Trump brand to expand into a potentially lucrative new market.
Campaign Trail Commentary
But once Trump began running his presidential campaign, his attitude towards Cuba shifted from seemingly approving of normalizing ties toward a more hardline approach (at least publicly).
In speeches he made after securing his nomination at the Republican National Convention, Trump began catering to the anti-normalization contingent of Cuban-American voters in Florida. He threatened to “reverse” Obama’s policy initiatives unless Cuba “meets our demands,” apparently referring to expanding religious and political freedoms for Cuban people.
While claiming that Obama’s concessions to the Castro regime were “one-sided,” Trump gloated that all normalization that has taken place since 2014 could be cancelled is he became president. His VP running mate, Mike Pence, elaborated further when he promised a crowd in Miami that, “when Donald Trump is President of the United States, we will repeal Obama’s executive orders on Cuba.”
These bold statements made throughout the campaign represented a significant shift in the President-Elect’s attitude toward U.S./Cuba relations. They were most likely a response to the views of anti-normalization hardliners living in and around Miami-Dade County, where over one-third of the population has Cuban roots.
Trump ended up losing Miami-Dade County to Hillary Clinton by nearly 300,000 votes. Still, he owes his overall victory in the swing state of Florida at least in part to those who support the overturning of legislation normalizing the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba.
What Will the President Elect Do?
Now that he’s the President-Elect, it’s unclear what Donald Trump will do about American travel to Cuba when he’s sworn into office on January 20th. He’s given no indication that US-Cuban relations are immediately on the chopping block, but he’s also stated that he’s not afraid to “terminate the deal.”
The majority of Cubans and Cuban-Americans have clearly demonstrated that they approve Obama’s “deal.” In September, a poll conducted by Florida International University found that 70% of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County backed Obama’s initiative to open diplomatic relations with Cuba. And 63% oppose the US embargo against the island nation.
It’s unlikely that a Trump move to overturn Obama’s executive orders on travel to Cuba would take place without pushback from the Cuban-American community in Florida– a state which Donald Trump considers his second home.
There’s also the added layer of complications that two years of investment on the part of American corporations adds to the mix. Airlines, tour operators, and hotel chains have all scrambled to keep up with the demand for American travel to Cuba, which has grown 50% in the past year. They’ve spent millions of dollars to establish tourism opportunities for Americans traveling to Cuba, in some cases essentially creating them from scratch.
These tourism developments took place under a “goodwill” understanding that the Obama administration established of what relations between the U.S. and Cuba would look like moving forward . If Trump were to reverse the deal and leave these major corporations on the hook for the enormous financial investments they’ve recently made, it’s likely that many lawsuits would follow.
For now, all we can do is wait to see how travel to Cuba will change once Donald Trump takes office. If the last decade is any indication, it’s likely to be anything but straightforward from here on out. What will end up happening is anyone’s guess. Which is all the more reason to visit the island nation sooner than later! –Sara McDaniel
BIO: Sara McDaniel is a San Diego-based educator who uses her summers to explore the world, often alongside her students! In addition to writing for The Volunteer Traveler, she has directed international programming for various travel organizations. When she’s not writing or researching, she can often be found swimming in the ocean, eating all of the delicious foods she can find, and teaching in San Diego State University’s College of Education.