Trump revamps Obama-era Cuba deal, turns heat up on regime
US President Donald Trump vowed to overhaul Barack Obama’s deal to restore ties with Cuba on Friday, promising to instead support the Cuban people against their “cruel and brutal” regime.
Trump flew to Miami’s Little Havana, spiritual home of the Cuban-American exile community, to denounce his predecessor’s “one-sided” settlement and vow before a partisan crowd to work for Cuba’s freedom.
In practical terms, Trump’s review of the deal was limited — it does not break diplomatic ties with Raul Castro’s communist regime, but it tightens rules for Americans traveling to Cuba, bans ties with a military-run tourism firm and reaffirms the existing US trade embargo.
“Effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” he declared before a cheering audience of Cuban-Americans at the Manuel Artime Theater in Little Havana.
That may have been overstating his case; a US Treasury statement on Trump’s new measures showed that they mainly relate to stricter enforcement of existing laws that had been loosened as Obama sought a rapprochement.
But they won roars of approval and cries of “Viva Cuba libre!” from the invited crowd of Cuban-Americans and Cuban exiles, including veterans of the ill-fated Brigade 2506, which in 1961 launched the failed US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion to “liberate” the communist-run island.
“Our policy will seek a much better deal for the Cuban people and for the United States of America. We do not want US dollars to prop up a military monopoly that exploits and abuses the citizens of Cuba,” Trump said.
“We will not lift sanctions on the Cuban regime until all political prisoners are free,” he said, introducing the crowd to a group of Cuban dissidents who met him at the airport to make the case for more pressure on Castro’s one-party regime.
The new measures prohibit financial transactions with Cuba’s military-backed tourism conglomerate GAESA, a body which might otherwise have hoped for a windfall from a new surge in American visitors.
Run by Castro’s son-in-law Luis Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas, GAESA is involved in joint ventures with several foreign firms that have driven a tourism boom on the island, including the Marriott hotel chain.
Signing a new National Security Presidential Memorandum, Trump announced stricter application of the rules under which Americans can travel to Cuba.
American citizens will still be able to take commercial flights to Cuba, but only for 12 specific reasons — ranging from journalism to educational activities — which will be more tightly enforced.
Cuban-Americans will still be able to travel to Cuba and send remittances, limiting the impact in Florida, where many Cuban emigres settled and where many of them turned out last year to vote for Trump.
Miami’s Cuban-American population has a reputation for diehard anti-communism and an opposition to thawing ties, but in the Little Havana district on Thursday, some even those who had fled oppression — were philosophical about detente.
“Obama did the right thing,” said 77-year-old Manuel Gonzales, who left the island in 2006. “The only person responsible for the embargo was Castro. We have to look forward, not back.”
Others were not so forgiving.
Marta Diaz, now 75, left Cuba in 1967 and time has done nothing to dull her anger towards the authoritarian regime. She urged Trump to impose “harsh measures” until the Havana regime falls.
Boosting travel was a key aim of Obama’s painstaking effort to restore ties with Cuba after a half-century chill, which reached a symbolic climax with a visit by the then-president in 2016.
Some 285,000 people visited the Caribbean country in 2016, up 74 percent over 2015, with Americans the third-biggest group after Canadians and Cuban expats.
“New restrictions on engagement with Cuban economy only pushes Cuba to China and Russia who will gladly make up the difference,” argued former White House official Ben Rhodes, the architect of Obama’s Cuba policy.
“Any limitations on travel hurt Cuban small business owners — restaurants, shops, taxis — that depend on travelers for revenue.”
Engage Cuba, a group lobbying for an end to the embargo, estimates that 10,000 US jobs in aviation and the cruise business already depend on Cuba.
Cuba’s new ambassador to the US, Jose Ramon Cabanas, who re-opened the embassy in Washington last year, tweeted a picture of American tourists ambling through a street market with the ironic message: “Now it is official: these are the new enemies of US Foreign Policy. Watch out!!”