MIAMI (REUTERS) – President Donald Trump on Friday (June 16) ordered tighter restrictions on Americans travelling to Cuba and a clampdown on US business dealings with the Caribbean island’s military, saying he was cancelling former President Barack Obama’s “terrible and misguided deal” with Havana.
Laying out his new Cuba policy in a speech in Miami, Trump signed a presidential directive rolling back parts of Obama’s historic opening to the Communist-ruled country after a 2014 diplomatic breakthrough between the two former Cold War foes.
But Trump left in place many of Obama’s changes, including the reopened US embassy in Havana, even as he sought to show he was making good on a campaign promise to take a tougher line against Cuba, especially over its human rights record.
“We will not be silent in the face of communist oppression any longer,” Trump told a cheering crowd in Miami’s Cuban-American enclave of Little Havana, including Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who helped forge the new restrictions on Cuba.
“Effective immediately, I am cancelling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” Trump declared as he made a full-throated assault on the government of Cuban President Raul Castro.
Trump’s revised approach calls for stricter enforcement of a longtime ban on Americans going to Cuba as tourists, and seeks to prevent US dollars from being used to fund what the Trump administration sees as a repressive military-dominated government.
But, facing pressure from US businesses and even some fellow Republicans to avoid turning back the clock completely in relations with Cuba, the president chose to leave intact some of his Democratic predecessor’s steps toward normalisation.
The new policy bans most US business transactions with the Armed Forces Business Enterprises Group, a Cuban conglomerate involved in all sectors of the economy. But it makes some exceptions, including for air and sea travel, according to US officials. This will essentially shield US airlines and cruise lines serving the island.
“We do not want US dollars to prop up a military monopoly that exploits and abuses the citizens of Cuba,” Trump said, pledging that US sanctions would not be lifted until Cuba frees political prisoners and holds free elections.
Trump based his partial reversal of Obama’s Cuba measures largely on human rights grounds.
His critics, however, have questioned why his administration is now singling out Cuba for its human rights record but downplaying the issue in other parts of the world, including Saudi Arabia, a close US ally Trump visited last month that grants few political freedoms to its citizens.
SOME OBAMA POLICIES LEFT IN PLACE
Trump, however, Trump stopped short of breaking diplomatic relations restored in 2015 after more than five decades of hostilities. He will not cut off recently resumed direct US-Cuba commercial flights or cruise-ship travel, though his more restrictive policy seems certain to dampen new economic ties overall.
The administration, according to one White House official, has no intention of “disrupting” existing business ventures such as one struck under Obama by Starwood Hotels, which is owned by Marriott International, to manage a historic Havana hotel.
Nor does Trump plan to reinstate limits that Obama lifted on the amount of the island’s coveted rum and cigars that Americans can bring home for personal use.
While the changes are far-reaching, they appear to be less sweeping than many US pro-engagement advocates had feared.
Still, it will be the latest attempt by Trump to overturn parts of Obama’s presidential legacy. He has already pulled the United States out of a major international climate treaty and is trying to scrap his predecessor’s landmark health-care programme.
When Obama announced the detente in 2014, he said that decades of US efforts to achieve change in Cuba by isolating the island had failed and it was time to try a new approach.
Critics of the rapprochement said Obama was giving too much away without extracting concessions from the Cuban government. Castro’s government has clearly stated it does not intend to change its one-party political system.
Trump aides say Obama’s efforts amounted to “appeasement”and have done nothing to advance political freedoms in Cuba, while benefiting the Cuban government financially.
“It’s hard to think of a policy that makes less sense than the prior administration’s terrible and misguided deal with the Castro regime,” Trump said in Miami, citing the lack of human rights concessions from Cuba in the detente negotiated by Obama.
International human rights groups say, however, that renewed U.S. efforts to isolate the island could worsen the situation by empowering Cuban hard-liners. The Cuban government has made clear it will not be pressured into reforms in exchange for engagement.
The Cuban government had no immediate comment, but ordinary Cubans said they were crestfallen to be returning to an era of frostier relations with the United States with potential economic fallout for them.
“It’s going to really hurt me because the majority of my clients are from the United States,” said Enrique Montoto, 61, who rents rooms on US online home-rental marketplace Airbnb, which expanded into Cuba in 2015.
Trump announced his new approach at the Manuel Artime Theatre in Little Havana, the heart of the United States’Cuban-American and Cuban exile community, whose support aides believe helped him win Florida in the election.
The venue is named after a leader of the failed US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 against Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government.
“I have trust in Trump to do the right thing when it comes to Cuba,” Jorge Saurez, 66, a retired physician, said in Little Havana. “That’s why I voted for him.”
Mexico urged the governments of the United States and Cuba to find points of agreement and resolve their differences “via dialogue.”
The biggest change in travel policy will be that Americans making educational people-to-people trips, one of the most popular authorized categories, can no longer go to the island on their own but only in groups.
Trump’s aides said the aim was to close off a path for Americans looking for beach vacations in a country where US tourism is still officially banned.
Under Trump’s order, the Treasury and Commerce departments will be given 30 days to begin writing new regulations, which will not take effect until they are complete.
In contentious deliberations leading up to the new policy, some aides argued that Trump, a former real estate magnate who won the presidency vowing to unleash US business, would have a hard time defending any moves that close off the Cuban market.
But other advisers have contended that it is important to make good on a campaign promise to Cuban-Americans.