ABC 10: New U.S.-Cuba policy heats up controversy

ABC 10 News


HAVANA - When Starwood Latin America Hotels & Resorts, a company with offices in Aventura, became the first U.S. hospitality chain to run Cuban government hotels, it made a deal with Gaesa, a Cuban military-run tourism conglomerate. 

Starwood took over Hotel Inglaterra, under the Cuban government's Gran Caribe, and the hotel Santa Isabel in Old Havana. In the eyes of critics of Cuban President Raul Castro and his Communist regime, Starwood made a deal with the devil. 

Rene Gomez Manzano, a Cuban dissident in Havana, is not worried about the negative effects that the business sector would face if the U.S. prohibits deals with the Cuban military, and the Russians and the Chinese are at an advantage again. 

"This is a totalitarian regime," said Gomez, a lawyer. "I think the most important aspect of this new kind of relationship would be the respect for human rights."

Gomez is hopeful about President Donald Trump's trip to Miami to announce his changes to former President Barack Obama's policy, which has been in effect since Dec. 17, 2014. Trump is expected to add restrictions on Obama's expansions on business and travel. 

A group of travel companies, a coalition of high-tech firms, farming interests and young Cuban-Americans want Trump to leave Obama's policies alone. But during his presidential campaign, Trump sided with Miami's Cuban exile community and Cuban-American Republican members of Congress. 

"Thousands of Americans are visiting Cuba and fueling the fastest growth in its private sector since 1959," CubaOne, a group of young pro-engagement Cuban-Americans, wrote in an open letter to Trump on Monday.

Trump will likely demand the release of more political prisoners. The Cuban military will continue to tout the benefits of cooperation with the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement agencies, to deal with drug trafficking.

Cuban Col. Victor Lopez Bravo said that if the U.S.-Cuba policy changes the biggest impact will be felt in the U.S. because, fundamentally, drugs are passing through Cuban territory to go to the U.S. 

"The start of direct relations between the agencies has already shown results," Lt. Col. Yoandrys Gonzalez Garcia, the head of the Cuban National Police, told The Associated Press. "Going back now would send a bad message to delinquents and criminals that there can be impunity." 

Collin Laverty, the head of one of the biggest Cuba travel companies, said Trump is going to reverse a policy that is already limiting.  A group of 55 Cuban women entrepreneurs sent a letter to Ivanka Trump to let her know the change in policy is going to hurt them. 

"If this were a traditional policy environment, we’d be having great success," Laverty said  

After months of public silence, Airbnb last week released a report on its activities in Cuba, which have put $40 million into the hands of private bed-and-breakfast owners since the online lodging giant became the first major U.S. company to move into Cuba in the wake of Obama’s declaration of detente. 

Google, which installed servers on the island to speed Cuban internet service last year, spoke out for the first time Monday in favor of maintaining relations. Brett Perlmutter, head of strategy and operations for Google Cuba, said Google wants to continue to increase Cuba’s connectivity.

"Connecting Cuba will require an entire ecosystem of players ... It will also require the U.S. maintaining a policy that allows telecommunications firms work in Cuba," Perlmutter said. 

Meanwhile, Sen. Chris Murphy joined a group of senators Monday asking Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Murphy to build on progress in Cuba for the benefit of U.S. workers and businesses competing for opportunities. 

Marcell Felipe, president of the Inspire America Foundation, an anti-Castro group that has been running ads on Spanish-language stations in Miami urging Cuban-Americans to demand a hard-line policy from Trump, said he is confident Trump has listened to them. 

"We’re confident that it will be a step in the right direction," Felipe said about Trump's upcoming announcement.