Trump restores some Cuba travel, economic penalties
Washington — President Donald Trump declared Friday he was restoring some travel and economic restrictions on Cuba that were lifted as part of the Obama administration’s historic easing. He challenged the communist government of Raul Castro to negotiate a better deal for Cubans and Cuban-Americans.
Announcing the rollback of President Barack Obama’s diplomatic opening during a speech in Miami, Trump said Cuba had secured far too many concessions from the U.S. in the “misguided” deal but “now those days are over.” He said penalties on Cuba would remain in place until its government releases political prisoners, stops abusing dissidents and respects freedom of expression.
“America has rejected the Cuban people’s oppressors,” Trump said in a crowded, sweltering auditorium. “They are rejected officially today — rejected.”
Though Trump’s announcement stops short of a full reversal of the Cuba rapprochement, it targets the travel and economic engagement between the countries that has blossomed in the short time since relations were restored. The goal is to halt the flow of U.S. cash to the country’s military and security services in a bid to increase pressure on Cuba’s government.
Embassies in Havana and Washington will remain open. U.S. airlines and cruise ships will still be allowed to serve the island 90 miles south of Florida. The “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which once let most Cuban migrants stay if they made it to U.S. soil but was terminated under Obama, will remain terminated. Remittances to Cuba won’t be cut off.
But individual “people-to-people” trips by Americans to Cuba, allowed by Obama for the first time in decades, will again be prohibited. And the U.S. government will police other such trips to ensure there’s a tour group representative along making sure travelers are pursuing a “full-time schedule of educational exchange activities.”
Trump described his move as an effort to ramp up pressure to create a “free Cuba” after more than half a century of communism.
“I do believe that end is in the very near future,” he said.
Senior White House officials who briefed reporters before the announcement said Obama’s overtures had enriched Cuba’s military while repression increased on the island. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the policy before the formal announcement, despite the president’s regular criticism of the use of anonymous sources.
The new moves are only a partial reversal of Obama’s policies, however, but they will burden the U.S. government with the complicated task of policing U.S. travel to Cuba to make sure there are no transactions with the military-linked conglomerate that runs much of the Cuban economy.
By restricting individual U.S. travel to Cuba, the new policy also risks cutting off a major source of income for Cuba’s private business sector, which the policy is meant to support.
Under the expected changes, the U.S. will ban American financial transactions with the dozens of enterprises run by the military-linked corporation GAESA, which operates dozens of hotels, tour buses, restaurants and other facilities.
Most U.S. travelers to Cuba will again be required to visit the island as part of organized tour groups run by American companies. The rules also require a daylong schedule of activities designed to expose travelers to ordinary Cubans. But because Cuban rules require tour groups to have government guides and use state-run tour buses, the requirement has given the Cuban government near-total control of travelers’ itineraries and funneled much of their spending to state enterprises.
Obama eliminated the tour requirement, allowing tens of thousands of Americans to book solo trips and spend their money with individual bed-and-breakfast owners, restaurants and taxi drivers.
Other aspects of Obama’s policies will stand.
The U.S. Embassy in Havana, which reopened in August 2015, will remain as a full-fledged diplomatic outpost, though likely without an ambassador. Trump isn’t overturning Obama’s decision to end the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allowed most Cuban migrants who made it onto U.S. soil to stay and eventually become legal permanent residents.
Also not expected are any changes to U.S. regulations governing what items Americans can bring back from Cuba, including the rum and cigars produced by state-run enterprises.
More details about the changes are expected Friday, when the new policy is set to take effect. But none of the changes will become effective until the Treasury and Commerce departments issue new regulations, which could take months. That means U.S. travelers currently booked on flights to Cuba in the next few weeks or months could make the trip.
Critics said the changes would only hurt everyday Cubans who work in the private sector and depend on the largesse of American visitors to help provide for their families. Supporters expressed appreciation for Trump’s emphasis on human rights in Cuba, despite his lack of interest in the human rights situation in other countries, such as Saudi Arabia. Trump visited the kingdom last month and said in a speech that he wasn’t there to “lecture” the ruling family about its repression of women and minorities.
Obama announced in December 2014 that he and Cuban leader Raul Castro were restoring diplomatic ties between their countries, arguing that a new approach was needed because the policy the U.S. had pursued for decades had failed to democratize the island.
The U.S. severed ties with Cuba in 1961 after Fidel Castro’s revolution, and spent subsequent decades trying to either overthrow the Cuban government or isolate the island, including by toughening an economic embargo first imposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The trade embargo remains in place under Trump. Only the U.S. Congress can lift it, and lawmakers, especially those of Cuban heritage, like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have shown no interest in doing so. Rubio opposed Obama’s re-engagement with Cuba.
Trump aides said Rubio was “very helpful” to the administration as it spent months reviewing the policy. The senator, who challenged Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, was expected to accompany Trump to Miami for the announcement.
The change in the U.S. posture toward Cuba under Trump marks the latest policy about-face by the president.
While campaigning last year in Miami, home to a large Cuban-American population, Trump pledged to reverse Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba unless it met certain “demands,” including granting Cubans religious and political freedom, and releasing political prisoners. He went on to win about half the Cuban vote in Florida in the presidential election, according to exit polls.
Trump previously had said he supported restoring diplomatic relations but wished the U.S. had negotiated a better deal.
For the announcement, the White House chose to have Trump speak at the Manuel Artime Theate in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. The theater is named for an exile leader of the Bay of Pigs veterans’ association that endorsed Trump last October.
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