President Donald Trump is expected to move soon to roll back the clock on the new era in U.S.-Cuba relations initiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama. The restoration of ties after 50 years of enmity has been good for America's security and its influence in the region, good for Cuban-Americans and good for the economies of Tampa Bay and Florida. It would be foolish to revert to the failed policies of the past when continued American engagement offers Cubans the opportunity for better lives and the United States an opportunity to expand trade and democracy.
Obama took a series of steps to open up trade and travel with Cuba, making it easier, cheaper and more convenient for Cuban-Americans — including many in the Tampa Bay area — to reconnect with family and help loved ones on the island. He eased some restrictions on commerce and U.S. travel to Cuba, cleared the way for new commercial flights between the two countries and set in motion cooperative efforts on a range of issues, from managing natural disasters to interdicting illegal drugs. The two countries re-established embassies in 2015, and Obama's visit to Cuba last year was the first for a U.S. president in nearly a century. Cuba's ambassador just visited Tampa Bay and talked of the benefits of increased travel between the two nations.
As a presidential candidate, Trump criticized the steps that Cuba is required to take as part of the reconciliation process as "weak," and he threatened to kill the agreement unless Cuba did more to open up its society. He is not expected to entirely reverse the agreement, given the huge popularity of Cuba-bound travel and the investments the airlines, the cruise ship industry and other sectors have made to take advantage of new business with the island nation. But Trump is expected to tighten some of the trade and travel restrictions. He also could more aggressively enforce the embargo, which could have a chilling effect on travel, educational exchanges and remittances to the island.
Trump should recognize that hard-liners on Cuba such as Republican Sen. Marco Rubio offer nothing constructive with their insistence on isolating rather than engaging Cuba. Most Americans support the Obama-era approach and for Congress to end the embargo altogether. The administration should continue to press Cuba to improve its human rights practices; Obama made clear that was an underlying goal of his reforms. But it is easier to influence the Cuban government through regular contact. Cuban citizens who talk directly with Americans will develop a greater appreciation for the freedoms that all humans should enjoy.
Florida and Tampa Bay have a particular stake in an improved relationship. The new U.S.-Cuba ties will help across the security front, from managing maritime crises to flows of refugees. The policy improves U.S. leverage in the region, and it makes Florida more competitive for business and international travel. Since charter flights resumed in 2011, a quarter-million passengers have flown from Tampa International Airport to Cuba. New, regularly scheduled commercial flights and cruise ship excursions will only strengthen the historical ties between Cuba and the bay area.
Rubio and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson wrote the State Department last week urging the Trump administration to seek compensation for Americans whose property was confiscated by the Cuban government. That effort has virtually no chance if the United States reverses course. Trump should support the fresh approach and work to make this new era in relations an even greater success.