Trump Adopts Harder Line On Cuba

Jun 15, 2017
Originally published on June 16, 2017 7:16 pm

Updated at 2:34 p.m. ET Friday

President Trump has announced new restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba, backtracking on the policy of greater engagement with the island pushed by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

"Effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration's completely one-sided deal with Cuba," Trump told a cheering crowd of Cuban exiles in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood. "Easing of restrictions on travel and trade does not help the Cuban people. They only enrich the Cuban regime."

Trump will not go so far as to sever diplomatic ties with Havana or shutter the U.S. Embassy, which reopened there in 2015. But he will impose new limits on commercial transactions that involve the Cuban military. And Americans will no longer be allowed to travel to the island on their own for "people-to-people" purposes, once the new rules are in place.

The new restrictions were championed by Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, two Cuban-American lawmakers from South Florida. Both men were on hand when Trump announced the changes in a sweltering theater named for a veteran of the failed, 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. Rubio accompanied the president on Air Force One.

"America is prepared to outstretch its hand and work with the people of Cuba. But we will not, we will not empower their oppressors," Rubio said.

The policy change fulfills a promise Trump made to Florida's Cuban exile community last fall. Although Trump lost the Miami area to Hillary Clinton by double digits, he credits support from Cuban-Americans with helping him eke out a narrow victory statewide.

"You went out and you voted, and here I am," Trump said Friday.

The policy changes won't take effect immediately, so Americans with plans to travel to Cuba in the near future won't be affected. But as soon as new regulations are drafted by the Treasury and Commerce departments, they're likely to pour cold water on the burgeoning Cuban travel business.

Cuban diplomat Josefina Vidal told the Miami Herald that more than 600,000 Americans visited the island last year, a 34 percent jump from 2014. The trips were made easier by the resumption of scheduled commercial air service from the U.S. for the first time in decades.

By law, travel to the island from the U.S. is still generally limited to 12 authorized categories such as educational activity, humanitarian projects and support for the Cuban people. The Obama administration eased those restrictions by allowing visitors to merely declare their reason for going, with few questions asked. The new Trump policy will require greater documentation. And travelers seeking "people-to-people" contact will have to sign up with an organized tour group.

"They know exactly what they're doing and what they're trying to do is stop travel to Cuba," said James Williams, president of a lobbying group that advocates for greater engagement with the island.

The new policy will also prohibit most commercial transactions that involve the Cuban military.

"We will very strongly restrict American dollars flowing to the military, security, and intelligence services that are the core of the Castro regime," Trump said.

That could have far-reaching effects since the military touches almost every corner of the Cuban economy. Many of the big hotels in Havana, for example, would be off-limits to American visitors.

White House officials say there will be some exceptions. Airlines will still be allowed to pay landing fees at Cuban airports, for example. And U.S. companies will still be allowed to support telecommunications and Internet service on the island.

"There are about 50 or 60 Wi-Fi hot spots in Havana. And you can tell where they are because there are dozens of people crowded around there," said Carlos Gutierrez, a Cuban-American who served as commerce secretary in the George W. Bush administration. "That has also happened as a result of normalization and I just can't imagine backtracking on something like that."

Polls suggest most Americans support the liberalized policy toward Cuba pushed by the Obama administration. Even among Cuban-Americans in South Florida, nearly two-thirds want to lift the U.S. embargo. Trump's policy, however, is being steered by a handful of politicians — including Rubio and Diaz-Balart — who insist the best way to bring about reform on the island is renewed economic isolation.

"This is limited to perhaps as small as three voices in the U.S. Congress, certainly less than 10, suggesting a course of action that is not only not the best interests of the United States of America, but it's not the popular view," said Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., one of seven House members who wrote to the president to oppose the changes.

The White House says it's willing to negotiate more favorable terms with Cuba, but only if the Castro regime allows free and fair elections and releases political prisoners.

Human rights advocates acknowledge that Cuba has made little progress in that area, despite the Obama overtures. But they argue, economic isolation didn't topple the Castro government either, despite more than a half-century of trying.

"We've had this new policy for basically two years. And we've already seen significant changes," said Williams. "Is it as much as we'd like to see? Absolutely not. And the Cuban government should do more. But the idea of returning to something that we know does not work doesn't make any sense."

"I think the evidence is modest but real that engagement contributes to a climate in which human rights can improve," said Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America.

Trump plans to preserve some of the policy changes made by Obama. Cubans who make their way to the U.S. without authorization will still be returned to the island, just like unauthorized visitors from other countries. And Americans who visit Cuba will still be allowed to bring rum and cigars home with them.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Trump is ordering new restrictions on Americans traveling or doing business in Cuba. That's a reversal from his predecessor Barack Obama who tried to promote more engagement with the island after decades of diplomatic isolation. The new policy fulfills a promise Trump made to conservative Cuban exiles in last year's presidential election. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The venue for Trump's announcement speaks volumes about America's more-than-a-half-century effort to topple the Castro regime. Trump spoke in a sweltering Miami theater named for Manuel Artime, a leader of the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I am so thrilled to be back here with all of my friends in Little Havana.

(CHEERING)

HORSLEY: Trump won the endorsement of Bay of Pigs veterans in the final days of last year's presidential campaign, and he credits his narrow victory in Florida to support from the most conservative elements of the Cuban-American community.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: You went out, and you voted. And here I am, like I promised...

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: ...Like I promised.

HORSLEY: Polls show even in South Florida, most Cuban-Americans would like to see more contact with Cuba, not less. But that's not the audience Trump was speaking to. His listeners cheered the president when he announced a change in course.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration's completely one-sided deal with Cuba.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: Trump is not completely reversing Obama's Cuba initiatives. The U.S. Embassy in Havana will stay open, and commercial air service between the U.S. and Cuba will continue. But the president's order will make it harder for Americans to travel to Cuba on their own for so-called people-to-people visits.

Trump also plans to block most business transactions with companies connected to the Cuban military. That could have far-reaching effects since the military touches almost every corner of the Cuban economy, including many of the big tourist hotels.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: We will very strongly restrict American dollars flowing to the military, security and intelligence services that are the core of the Castro regime. They will be restricted.

HORSLEY: Trump's new policy was heavily influenced by a handful of Cuban-American lawmakers, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARCO RUBIO: America is prepared to outstretch its hand and work with the people of Cuba. But we will not - we will not empower their oppressors.

HORSLEY: Even in a Republican Congress, though, Rubio's tough-on-Cuba stance represents a minority viewpoint. Most of his Senate colleagues support legislation that would make it easier for Americans to visit Cuba. The White House says Trump is open to relaxing the new restrictions once the Cuban government frees political prisoners and holds fair elections. But Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America questions the administration's tactics.

GEOFF THALE: A policy of isolation does nothing and has done nothing to improve the human rights situation.

HORSLEY: Supporters of the Obama-era Cuba policy concede. It has not produced the kind of economic and political reforms they'd like to see. But James Williams, who heads a lobbying group that promotes engagement with Cuba, says it's too soon to quit trying.

JAMES WILLIAMS: We've had this new policy for basically two years, and we've already seen significant changes. Is it as much as we'd like to see - absolutely not. But the idea of returning to something that we know does not work doesn't make any sense.

HORSLEY: Trump is not changing some elements of the Obama Cuba policy. Americans who make it to the island will still be allowed to come home carrying Cuban rum and cigars. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.