Trump will stop short of scrapping Obama’s Cuba policies

16 June 2017
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In a shot at one of Barack Obama’s signature policies, President Trump on Friday will announce steps designed to restrict U.S. travel to Cuba and curb the flow of American cash to entities connected to the island’s military, according to White House aides.

But Trump will leave the bulk of his predecessor’s approach untouched, including the establishment of formal diplomatic relations and Cuba’s removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Obama’s decision to end preferential treatment for undocumented Cubans who reach U.S. shores will also survive.

And the new financial restrictions envision carve-outs that will largely spare existing business dealings, including those in agriculture, telecommunications, airlines and cruise lines, and potentially hotels. Cuban-Americans will still be able to send money to relatives. And Americans returning from authorized travel to Cuba will still be able to bring back $100 in rum and cigars.

Three Trump aides described the new policy to reporters in the briefing room of the White House in a question-and-answer session held on condition that they not be named.

The most significant shift appears to be a return to tougher enforcement of travel restrictions for individuals and groups. While tourism has been illegal under a decades-old U.S. embargo imposed after the 1959 revolution that swept Fidel Castro to power, the Obama administration largely looked the other way, permitting individuals and groups to visit the island if they fell into one of 12 categories. Enforcement was largely on an honor system.

The Trump administration will end “people-to-people” visits for individuals who claim to be visiting the island to engage Cubans or for “educational activities.” Groups will still be able to go, but will be subject to far greater scrutiny to ensure that they fulfilled the requirements for authorized travel, the aides told reporters. The overall effect will likely be to “chill” American travel, one aide told Yahoo News.

This approach, which the president will announce in Miami, is meant to fulfill promises Trump made on the campaign trail in 2016, and to accommodate lawmakers such as Sen. Marco Rubio, who favor taking a harder line on the government in Havana.

“Economic practices that benefit the Cuban military at the expense of the Cuban people will soon be coming to an end #BetterDealforCuba,” Rubio said on Twitter.

Trump is set to unveil the policy at a theater named for a veteran of the disastrous 1961 CIA-backed Bay of Pigs Invasion aimed at overthrowing Fidel Castro. He will cast the new approach as striking a blow against Cuban government repression of political dissent, which has risen since Obama announced his historic opening to the former Cold War foe in December 2014. Trump aides note that Obama’s approach has thus far failed to yield dividends in terms of greater political freedom. Obama aides argue that decades of trying to isolate Cuba failed as well, and that the new approach deserves more time.

Exactly how the new policy will play out in regulations affecting both economic and human rights issues remains to be seen.

Trump’s directive will order key agencies including the Departments of State, Treasury and Commerce to craft regulations to limit American financial dealings with entities connected to Cuba’s military, which by some estimates controls 80 percent of the island’s economy. That includes most of the tourism sector on which Havana relies to generate much-needed foreign currency. But the aides said airlines would still be able to pay landing fees and cruise ships would still be allowed to pay docking fees.

And, the aides said, the regulation-crafting process could also include exemptions for U.S. hotel chains to make deals in which they would operate (but not own) facilities controlled by a Cuban military-backed entity known as Gaviota. That could have the effect of prohibiting Americans from staying at hotels operated by foreign firms.

In his speech, Trump will defend the U.S. embargo, press the Cuban government to release political prisoners and move towards free and fair elections, the aides said. He will also reiterate Washington’s demand that Havana turn over American fugitives from justice. There are several known to be living in Cuba, including Joanne Chesimard, who fled there in 1984 after escaping a life sentence for the murder of a New Jersey state trooper.

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