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Trump's Cuba Policy Proves Obama Was Right

The Obama administration sought a Cuba policy aimed at helping ordinary Cubans. Trump is keeping most of the policy in place, with one wrong-headed exception.

Havana, street scene
Havana, street scene
Farid Kahhat


Former US President Barack Obama's strategy toward communist Cuba made a clear-eyed diagnosis based on an initial assumption. This was that a half-century-long economic embargo had not attained its stated objective (regime change), and had even proved to be counterproductive in that regard.

Over recent decades, evidence points to several key reasons for this failure. For a start, generalized sanctions with maximalist objectives (like regime change) tend to fail. That is because authoritarian regimes are able to redistribute the cost of sanctions, and ensure it is borne by their political rivals and society as a whole, rather than the regime. Worse, the sanctioned regime can use sanctions to reward its allies. The Iranian government for example conceded to firms tied to the Revolutionary Guards control of sanction-busting, black-market operations that were economic opportunities that emerged precisely because of sanctions.

Observing the failure of the embargo policy, Obama saw a need for fundamental change toward Cuba — and toward the use of embargoes in general. When the Obama administration decided to apply sanctions to Venezuela, these targeted particular people and firms, not the entire Venezuelan economy (the administration of President Donald Trump has maintained the same line toward Caracas).

Decisions must create interest groups that raise the cost of reversing them

The second element of the Obama diagnosis was that any change of policy toward Cuba had to be done through Executive Orders, meaning without requiring the approval of Congress, which had a Republican majority opposed to the president. The decisions must also create interest groups that would have a stake in maintaining them, and effectively raise the cost of any later attempt to reverse them.

Judging by the limited change the Trump administration has made to the new Cuba policies (despite some rhetoric to the contrary) Obama's diagnosis seem to be right. Let us consider for example one essential component of the new Cuba policy, namely a ban on US firms doing any business with Cuban firms controlled by the armed forces. In principle this change does not contradict a central element of Obama's diagnosis, namely that Cuban society's subsistence greatly depends on regime provisions. Doing business with Cuban state and military firms, in other words, does not empower civil society and social actors.

On the other hand it is symptomatic that the new policy exempts from this ban those US firms that have already developed ties to Cuba (like airlines, cruises or the Marriott hotel chain). The reason again falls within Obama's diagnosis: not exempting them would have prompted these firms to start lobbying against their government's change of policy, not to mention potentially take legal action against the new administration.

Paradoxically, the change approved by the Trump administration that will have most impact in Cuba (restoring restrictions on personal travel to Cuba by US citizens) could also confirm Obama's diagnosis: significantly reducing trips to the island will adversely affect the revenues of taxi drivers, tourist guides, waiters, craftsmen, bed and breakfasts, eateries and the like, or broadly, the island's small businesses. Just the people and sectors US authorities say they want to empower.

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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

Why The U.S. Lost Its Leverage In The Middle East — And May Never Get It Back

In the Israel-Hamas war, Qatar now plays the key role in negotiations, while the United States appears increasingly disengaged. Shifts in the region and beyond require that Washington move quickly or risk ceding influence to China and others for the long term.

Photograph of U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken  shaking hands with sraeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

November 30, 2023, Tel Aviv, Israel: U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken shakes hands with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

Chuck Kennedy/U.S State/ZUMA
Sébastien Boussois


PARIS — Upon assuming office in 2008, then-President Barack Obama declared that United States would gradually begin withdrawing from various conflict zones across the globe, initiating a complex process that has had a major impact on the international landscape ever since.

This started with the American departure from Iraq in 2010, and was followed by Donald Trump's presidency, during which the "Make America Great Again" policy redirected attention to America's domestic interests.

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The withdrawal trend resumed under Joe Biden, who ordered the exit of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2021. To maintain a foothold in all intricate regions to the east, America requires secure and stable partnerships. The recent struggle in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict demonstrates that Washington increasingly relies on the allied Gulf states for any enduring influence.

Since the collapse of the Camp David Accords in 1999 during Bill Clinton's tenure, Washington has consistently supported Israel without pursuing renewed peace talks that could have led to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

While President Joe Biden's recent challenges in pushing for a Gaza ceasefire met with resistance from an unyielding Benjamin Netanyahu, they also stem from the United States' overall disengagement from the issue over the past two decades. Biden now is seeking to re-engage in the Israel-Palestine matter, yet it is Qatar that is the primary broker for significant negotiations such as the release of hostages in exchange for a ceasefire —a situation the United States lacks the leverage to enforce.

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