Trump Orders Partial Rollback of Cuba Rapprochement
Making good on a campaign pledge, President Donald Trump on Friday announced in Miami a significant rollback of former President Barack Obama’s accord with Cuba by clearly banning tourist travel to the island, restating the importance of the 56-year-old trade embargo with the island and instituting a broad prohibition on financial transactions with companies significantly controlled by the Cuban government’s military.
“I’m so thrilled to be back here, with all of our friends in Little Havana. I love it. This is an amazing community,” President Trump said at the top of his keynote speech.
In a speech in which President Trump trailed off time and again, the audience and viewers learned very little about the specs of the new executive order that will go into effect 90 days from today.
“Last year I promised I was going to be a voice for the region, and so I intend to be,” Mr. Trump went on to say. “I made a promise to you last year and I keep my promise… My government will not be blind to what’s happening in Cuba and we’ll always remember what’s going on there on the island.”
“My administration’s policy will be guided by key U.S. national security interests and solidarity with the Cuban people,” the draft of the five-point, eight-page Presidential Policy Directive reads. “I will seek to promote a stable, prosperous, and free country for the Cuban people. To that end, we must ensure that U.S. funds are not channeled to a regime that has failed to meet the most basic requirements of a free and just society.”
“This is a new way to enforce the old embargo,” said John S. Kavulich, president of U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
For U.S.-based companies such as the Marriott-owned Starwood Hotels, the Trump policy could mean the cancellation of its special U.S. government license – obtained last year under the Obama administration – allowing it to sign a deal with Cuba giving it management over a historic Havana hotel.
The directive instructs the Secretary of the Treasury to consult with the Commerce Department to promulgate new rules 90 days after the presidential policy directive is issued Friday.
While tourism to Cuba is banned by federal law, the Obama administration had been allowing people to travel to Cuba and spend money as part of “people to people” educational trips for visitors who plan a full itinerary of educational exchange activities, though there had been little to no enforcement of these requirements.
The Trump administration is stepping up requirements on those sorts of trips, requiring a full-time schedule of activities that “enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that the travel must result in a meaningful interaction between the traveler” and Cubans, according to the draft. Travelers to Cuba will have to keep detailed records of all their financial transactions in the country for five years to make available to the Treasury Department if requested.
Anyone who travels to Cuba, however, might be able to stay at an Airbnb or eat at an independent restaurant, although that interpretation is not clearly spelled out in the draft order. But those who go to the island under a U.S. license will need to keep strict notes proving they’re complying with the new executive order – or face fines.
In what may presage a funding request for more money for regime change efforts, the Secretary of State and the head of USAID are directed to review all of the U.S. democracy development programs in Cuba to make sure they line up with federal law.
There will be some other exceptions for spending money in Cuba, though few that would apply to anyone visiting for pleasure. Still allowed will be spending related to U.S. government operations on the island, such as the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station and the diplomatic mission on the island, and spending that supports programs aimed at building democracy in Cuba or further U.S. interests and certain transactions with airports and seaports dealing with travel and trade, such as docking and landing fees.
Purchasing visas, too, will be permitted for those who are allowed to travel to Cuba. Transactions related to the sale of agricultural commodities, medicine and medical devices— exceptions to the embargo that have already been carved out in U.S. law—will still be okay. And remittances from Cubans living in the U.S. will also still be allowed.
The changes won’t be a complete rollback of the normalization of relations pursued under the Obama administration. The U.S. embassy in Havana will remain open as an embassy, as opposed to its precursor, the “U.S. Interests Section.”
The Trump administration also won’t be reinstating the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which gave safe haven to Cuban refugees who successfully reached American shores, on the basis that it encouraged Cubans to make the perilous journey across the Florida Straits. In January, the Obama administration ended the policy, which faced criticism for giving preferential treatment to Cubans over other immigrants.