16 Juin 2017
Donald Trump has announced a partial rollback of his predecessor’s rapprochement with Cuba, tightening travel and trade rules on the grounds of what he said was a worsening human rights situation on the island.
The new rules will stop individual travel to Cuba and seek to restrict the flow of payments to the many Cuban companies owned by the regime’s security forces. It will not fully reverse the steps taken by Barack Obama in 2015 to ease the half-century policy of isolating Cuba.
“The outcome of the last administration’s executive order has been only more oppression,” Trump told an audience of Cuban Americans in Miami.
“I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba. I am announcing a new policy, just as I promised in the campaign.”
Despite the president’s claim, the Obama policy will be revised rather than overturned entirely. Diplomatic relations will remain in place and commercial air and sea links will be exempted from the new restrictions.
But the new measures are likely to have dampening effect on US nationals traveling to Cuba. Although a ban on tourism remained in place under the Obama administration, White House officials said many Americans skirted the rules by declared their trip to Cuba fell under one of the allowed categories, such as education or professional research.
When the Trump regulations are enacted, only travel with an organised group will be allowed and the purpose of the trip will be more strictly policed. Cuban Americans will still be able visit and send remittances to their families.
“The requirement is that individuals who are going to Cuba actually engage in a full-time schedule of activities designed to enhance their interaction with the Cuban people and consistent with the policy objectives of ensuring that the money goes to the Cuban people and not to the military and intelligence services,” a senior administration official said.
The new policy, when implemented by the treasury department, will restrict US business with companies linked to the army and intelligence organisations, most importantly the army-owned Grupo de Administración Empresarial (GAESA), which has wide holdings across the Cuban economy, including most of the tourist hotels.
Trump made his announcement in the heart of the Cuban exile community at a theatre named after Manuel Artime – a leader of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, an ill-fated CIA-backed attempt at counter-revolution.
“We won’t allow US dollars to prop up military monopolies that exploit and abuse the people of Cuba,” Trump said. “We enforce the ban on tourism. We will enforce the embargo... My action today bypasses the military and the government to help the Cuban people themselves form businesses and pursue much better lives”
Trump reeled of a litany of the Castro regime’s offenses, stretching back through the cold war to the 1962 missile crisis, and the 1996 shooting down of two planes piloted by anti-Castro activists, Brothers to the Rescue. The president told the crowd: “You have heard the chilling cries of loved ones or the cracks of firing squads piercing through the ocean breeze – not a good sound.”
Trump was cheered by the crowd in the Miami theatre, many of them veteran anti-Castro activists.
“The message was very clear,” said Humberto Díaz Arguelles, president of the Bay of Pigs veterans association, the survivors of the paramilitary Brigade 2506 who took part in the invasion attempt.
“President Trump is one of very few presidents who has really absorbed the feeling of the Cuban situation, he knows what we’re about and it touched him,” said Arguelles, who had a front-row seat at the Manuel Artime theatre.
“We’ve been waiting for that freedom for more than 58 years,” he added. “It’s about time. The Castros have had a lot of give and take and nobody put a stop to them.”
But for younger generations of Cuban-Americans who favoured the Obama-era policy of engagement, Trump’s declaration was disappointing.
“The window that opened, we were so excited about,” said Alexa Ferrer, 21, a Miami-born, third-generation Cuban whose grandfather was a member of Brigade 2506. “Now I’m very nervous. What worries me is that shutting things down again will allow for another world power to come in and have influence [in Cuba].”
The president was accompanied to Miami by Florida congressman Mario Díaz-Balart and Senator Marco Rubio, who compared Trump’s visit to Miami with Obama’s breakthrough trip to Havana in March 2016.
“A year and a half ago an American president landed in Havana and outstretched his hand to the regime. Today a new president reaches out his hand to the people of Cuba,” Rubio told the crowd before Trump spoke.
Rubio was a Trump rival in the Republican primaries. But his vote and voice are now critical in the delicately balanced Senate – especially on the Senate intelligence committee, which is currently conducting hearings on the Trump campaign’s links with Moscow.
“As always, US policy is predominantly responding to internal US politics,” said José Buscaglia, a Cuba expert at Northeastern University. “This is for Marco Rubio and for Diaz-Balart – basically exchanging their votes that Trump needs for a symbolic stance towards Cuba that will please their hardline funders.”
The speech was not broadcast in Cuba, but some residents of Havana expressed disappointment that the two countries were heading for a renewed period of frosty relations.
“It hurts to be going backwards. To roll back the engagement will only manage to isolate us from the world,” Havana resident Marta Deus told Reuters “We need clients, business, we need the economy to move – and by isolating Cuba, they will only manage to hurt many Cuban families and force companies to close.”
Esteban Morales, a member of the Cuban Communist Party and expert on relations with the United States, downplayed the significance of Trump’s announcement.
“This is no big change from the Obama policy,” he said. “There may be a little effect on immigration and business, but diplomatic relations with continue. That is the main part of the agreement [with Obama].”
Democracy campaigner Rosa María Payá urged Trump to go further by supporting a plebiscite that would allow people on the island to decide their own future.
“Only the Cuban citizens are capable of putting an end to totalitarianism in Cuba, so that the transition to democracy can really begin in Cuba, but we also need international solidarity. That’s way beyond any intellectual debate about the US embargo and/or the US engagement with the Cuban dictatorship,” she told the Guardian.
Trump cited human rights concerns as the primary driver in tightening restrictions on Cuba, but the president has prided himself on his warm relations with some of the world’s most autocratic regimes, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt and human rights violators like Phillippines president Rodrigo Duterte.
Justin Amash, a Republican congressman from Michigan, tweeted that Trump’s “Cuba policy is not about human rights or security. If it were, then why is he dancing with the Saudis and selling them weapons?”
National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton, denied that the approach was inconsistent. Anton said that Trump “approaches the question in different ways depending on relationship” with each country, but added “his concern is consistent no matter what the country.”
“It’s true that the president approaches the question of human rights in different ways, depending on the relationship the United States has with a particular country,” Anton said. “So he takes a different tack depending on the nature of the relationship between the two countries, but his concern is consistent no matter what the country.”
The administration’s critics also pointed out Trump’s professed support for human rights in Cuba was not reflected in his budget priorities.
“Just last month, the president’s budget proposed zeroing out funding for programs that support human rights and democracy in Cuba,” Democratic senator Ben Cardin said.