Washington, D.C.

Moving to scuttle Obama legacy, Trump to crack down on Cuba

Expected to declare approach of engagement has amounted to failed policy
Teens race down a residential street in Camilo Cienfuegos, Cuba.
Teens race down a residential street in Camilo Cienfuegos, Cuba.

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday will move to halt the historic rapprochement between the United States and Cuba set in motion by former President Barack Obama, delivering a speech in Miami in which he plans to announce he is clamping down on travel and commercial ties with the island nation to force the government of Raul Castro to change its repressive ways.

Trump is expected to declare that the 2-year-old Obama-era approach of engagement has amounted to a failed policy of appeasement. To that end, he plans to outline stiffer rules for U.S. travelers visiting Cuba and a sweeping prohibition against transactions with companies controlled by the military, which runs vast segments of the hotel and tourism sector, according to White House officials.

The changes are likely to affect both countries, making it more difficult and costly for Americans to travel to and do business with Cuba. The island’s population potentially may pay the steeper price, particularly Cubans who derive their livelihoods from tourism and increased business opportunities stemming from the opening.

The expected changes will also place a distinct chill on the relationship between the United States and Cuba that was just beginning to thaw after a half-century of isolation and estrangement and thrust the two countries back into an adversarial posture that is among the last vestiges of the Cold War.

In making the shift, Trump is delivering on a politically potent promise he made to the Cuban-American exile community based in Miami, which backed him in last year’s election and was deeply opposed to the detente. The new policy was shaped in large part by Cuban-American Republicans in Congress, including Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, both of Florida, and both of whom wanted even stiffer U.S. sanctions on the Castro government.

But many business leaders and human rights groups are profoundly opposed to the change. Even members of Trump’s administration have privately argued that the move toward normalizing relations between Washington and Havana had yielded national security, diplomatic and economic benefits for the United States that should not be sacrificed.

The internal conflict is evident in the new approach, which will be enshrined in a policy directive that Trump plans to issue Friday, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid pre-empting the president.

Although Trump has repeatedly said that Obama made a “bad deal” with Cuba, his shift falls well short of the wholesale reversal that many hard-liners, including Diaz-Balart, were seeking.

Embassies in Washington and Havana that reopened in 2015 for the first time in a half-century will remain open. The Trump administration is not moving to unwind other regulations that have carved out exceptions to the trade embargo, including those allowing direct financing of certain exports and allowing American dollars to be used in transactions with Cuba, the officials said.

Nor does Trump plan to restore the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that Obama ended last year, which allowed Cubans who arrived on United States soil without visas to remain in the country and gain legal residency.

Still, Trump’s expected changes are substantial.

The directive calls for reversing a rule that Obama put in place last year to allow Americans who are making educational or cultural trips to initiate their own travel to Cuba without special permission from the U.S. government and without a licensed tour company so long as they kept records of their activities for five years. The 2016 change punctured a major element of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, which bars tourism.

Now, such trips, sometimes known as “people-to-people” exchanges, will only be possible as part of a licensed tour group, as was the case before last year. And the Treasury Department, which will be tasked with drafting the new rules, will be directed to strictly enforce the law regarding travel to Cuba, including with routine audits.

Trump is also directing a broad prohibition against Americans doing business with companies controlled by the military, intelligence or security services in Cuba, which control of large swaths of the economy, including many foreign-owned hotels, through the military’s business arm known as Grupo de Administracion Empresarial SA, or GAESA. However, White House officials said there would be exceptions, including for airports and seaports, meaning that the operation of cruise ships and commercial flights would not be affected.

The current policy, officials argued, enriched the Cuban military and empowered a government that has engaged in human rights abuses. Trump’s directive will call for the State Department to issue a list of blacklisted companies to comply with the prohibition.

The Trump administration will lay out conditions that the Cuban government would have to meet before the restrictions could be lifted, including holding free and fair elections, releasing political prisoners and allowing Cuban workers to be paid directly, one White House official said.

The impending changes drew sharp criticism from architects of the Obama-era policy.

Benjamin J. Rhodes, a former deputy national security to Obama who helped broker the opening first announced in 2014, called the clampdown a politically motivated move that would ultimately be self-defeating. He said it would revive an adversarial dynamic between the United States and Cuba that would harm citizens of both countries while allowing the Castro government to once again cast Americans as the root of all its people’s ills.

“For nothing more than a partial rollback, Trump has made us the bad guy again,” Rhodes said Thursday. “They are not going as far as the real hard line, but they are going far enough to cause damage.”

Business organizations that have been pushing Congress to lift the embargo, to foster potentially lucrative commercial relationships and closer personal and cultural ties between the United States and Cuba, also voiced opposition.

“The idea that after 55 years of failure, going back to isolationist policies will produce any results is insane,” said James Williams, the president of Engage Cuba, a pro-engagement group.

Trump plans to cast his decision on Cuba as a matter of human rights, arguing that the changes will ensure that the United States is not rewarding a government that deprives its citizens of basic rights.

“This is going to have a dampening effect, but so be it,” said Jorge Mas, the president of the Cuban American National Foundation, a Cuban exile group. “The Cuban government’s behavior has to change, and they will now understand the cost of not changing behavior.”

Human rights groups had implored the administration not to roll back the engagement policy, arguing that while the Castro government’s record continued to be poor, cutting nascent ties with Cuba would only hurt its citizens.

“The Cuban government was able to use the old policy as an excuse for all the problems on the island and as a pretext for repression,” Daniel Wilkinson, the managing director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, said Thursday. “It’s true the repressive system in Cuba has not changed, but the fact that two years of a different policy didn’t change things isn’t a reason to go back to one that was a clear failure for decades.”

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