Trump restores restrictions on Cuba loosened by Obama

'We will not be silent in the face of communist oppression any longer,' Trump said
A tour bus along Havana’s Malecon, Sept. 10 2015.
A tour bus along Havana’s Malecon, Sept. 10 2015.

MIAMI — President Donald Trump announced Friday that he was reversing crucial pieces of what he called a “terrible and misguided deal” with Cuba and will reinstate travel and commercial restrictions eased by the Obama administration in an attempt to obtain additional concessions from the Cuban government.

During a speech in Little Havana, the epicenter of a Cuban exile community that enthusiastically supported him in last year’s election, Trump said he was keeping a campaign promise to roll back the policy of engagement begun by President Barack Obama in 2014, which he said had empowered the communist government in Cuba and enriched the country’s repressive military.

“We will not be silent in the face of communist oppression any longer,” Trump said at the Manuel Artime Theater, named for a former supporter of Fidel Castro who became a leader of Brigade 2506, the land forces that spearheaded the U.S.-led Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

“Effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” Trump said.

But Trump’s action fell well short of doing so. After the speech, he signed a six-page directive that ordered new travel and commercial restrictions while leaving in place some key Obama-era measures that eased sanctions.

As part of the new policy, Americans will no longer be able to plan their own private trips to Cuba, and those who go as part of authorized educational tours will be subject to strict new rules and audits to ensure that they are not going just as tourists.

U.S. companies and citizens will also be barred from doing business with any firm controlled by the Cuban military or its intelligence or security services, walling off crucial parts of the economy, including much of the tourist sector, from U.S. access.

“We do not want U.S. dollars to prop up a military monopoly that exploits and abuses the citizens of Cuba,” Trump said.

Despite his grandiose description, the president’s policy represents a middle ground between hard-liners in Congress, including Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, both Florida Republicans who have called for a complete reversal of Obama’s Cuba policy, and business leaders, human rights groups and many of Trump’s own advisers who wanted to preserve it.

It drew swift condemnation from diverse quarters, from congressional Democrats and a handful of Republicans who support greater engagement with Cuba, to business-minded conservatives like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which argued the move would hurt U.S. businesses and jobs.

Still, Trump’s action allowed him to claim credit for taking a tough stand while leaving in place many of the changes made by Obama, which polls have shown are broadly supported, including by most Republicans.

Under Trump’s directive, embassies in Washington and Havana will stay open and cruises and direct flights between the United States and Cuba will be protected under an exception from the prohibition on transactions with military-controlled entities.

Nor does the measure affect the ability of Cuban-Americans to travel freely to the island and send money to relatives there, or a broad array of rules the Obama administration put in place aimed at making it easier for U.S. companies to do business in Cuba.

Just over one year ago, Obama took the stage at a theater in Havana, with Castro in attendance, to reject that thinking and declare that he intended to “bury the last vestige of the Cold War” and “leave behind the ideological battles of the past.”

On Friday, Trump sought to revive that struggle, listing the misdeeds of the Castro government over more than five decades. “We will never, ever be blind to it,” Trump said. “We remember what happened.”

His audience of Cuban exiles and their families, including Rubio and Díaz-Balart, roared its approval.

“President Trump will treat the Castro regime as the malevolent dictatorship that it is,” Díaz-Balart said.

But critics argued that Trump was returning to a strategy that had been a proven failure.

Benjamin Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser for Obama who led secret negotiations with Cuban officials that led to the rapprochement, said Trump’s moves would undermine his stated objectives, pushing the Cubans into the arms of the Chinese and Russians, who have no restrictions on their dealings there, and emboldening hard-liners in the country who are opposed to moving toward democracy.

“If you want Cuba to change and reform, we are doing the opposite of what would be most likely to bring about reforms inside of Cuba,” Rhodes said.

But some Cuban dissidents who had backed Obama’s thaw in the hopes it would lead to greater openness on the island said the opposite had occurred. Among them was José Daniel Ferrer García, head of the Cuban Patriotic Union, the largest opposition group in Cuba, who was among the dissidents Obama met last year in Cuba.

“We believe that this is the moment for a maximum reversal of some policies that only benefit the Castro regime and does very little or nothing for the oppressed people,” Ferrer wrote in an open letter to Trump last week. “It is time to impose strong sanctions on the regime of Raúl Castro.”

Under Trump’s directive, the departments of Treasury and Commerce will have 30 days to begin writing new travel and commercial regulations. They are instructed to reverse a rule 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, as long as they kept records of their activities for five years.

Such trips will now only be possible through a U.S. government-approved tour company, as was the case before 2016. The move shuts down what amounted to a backdoor way to allow American tourism in Cuba, despite the decades-old embargo that prohibits it.

Trump is also directing a broad prohibition against Americans doing business with companies controlled by the military, intelligence or security services in Cuba, which own large segments of the economy through the military’s business arm known as Grupo de Administracion Empresarial SA, or GAESA.

The change could have sweeping implications for U.S. companies, but it is not clear how it will affect existing deals, such as the one struck by Starwood Hotels and Resorts last year to manage hotels in Cuba, including one owned by the military conglomerate Gaviota.

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