Cuba Is a Problem That Trump Is Making Worse

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Trump and his officials have taken steps lately to make things harder for Cuba, aiming to persuade its government to stop helping Venezuela’s embattled tyrant, Nicolas Maduro. That’s a worthy goal, and Cuba’s material support for Maduro is certainly objectionable, but this is the wrong way to get results.

The administration just announced that U.S. citizens will be able to sue foreigners for transactions involving property that Cuba’s government confiscated after the 1959 revolution. This legal recourse was made available by the Helms-Burton Act in 1996 — but was then frozen, for good reasons, by successive administrations. Tougher restrictions on travel and remittances will also come into force. These new moves follow previous bans on commerce with businesses owned by the Cuban military and security services; restrictions on individual travel to Cuba; a veto of Major League Baseball’s deal with Cuban authorities to hire Cuban players without obliging them to defect; and the shrinking of the embassy in Havana to a skeleton staff.

This economic and diplomatic assault will, as intended, inflict real damage on Cuba — but if history is any guide, that’s unlikely to make the country’s rulers budge. Instead, opening the floodgates for litigation against Canadian and European companies doing business in Cuba will fracture the international front against Maduro — not to mention swamping U.S. courts with troublesome lawsuits. Since 1964, the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission has certified nearly 6,000 claims valued (with interest) at $8 billion. The State Department apparently thinks there could be as many as 200,000 still-uncertified claims.

A full resumption of normal ties between the U.S. and Cuba should indeed require the victims of expropriation to be compensated. A process that could have yielded this result was underway thanks to the warming of relations under President Obama, including the restoring of diplomatic ties in 2015. The Trump administration’s plan is much less promising.

Canada and the European Union — the biggest foreign investor in Cuba — have said they are “determined to work together to protect the interests of our companies” at the World Trade Organization and through counter-claims against any U.S. lawsuits. There’s already disagreement about how much pressure to apply to Maduro, and the litigation initiative — more an attack on America’s friends than on Cuba or Venezuela — will widen that rift.

The Trump administration came into office betting that Cuba’s government would buckle under pressure, but Havana has withstood much worse than this: the U.S. embargo, for one, and the devastating economic contraction from 1989 to 1994 thanks to the collapse of Cuba’s Soviet patron. Aside from dividing what could have been a U.S.-led coalition, the new escalation will play into the hands of aging hardliners, encourage Cuba to seek help from Russia and China, and weaken potent internal forces for change.

The previous rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba wasn’t fruitless: It encouraged some economic reforms and greater cooperation in counter-narcotics, environmental protection and other areas. Granted, it didn’t end the regime’s repression or its support for other tyrannies, notably North Korea and Venezuela. But the Trump’s administration’s new course is unlikely to fare as well.

Engagement is no panacea. Targeted sanctions have their place. But Cuba should be confronted with the broadest possible front of critics and opponents. The Trump administration has just made that harder.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.