Cuba must end human rights violations if it wants the US to continue normalising relations, secretary of state Rex Tillerson has warned.
Donald Trump is expected to travel to Miami on Friday to announce reversals to elements of Barack Obama’s Cuba policy, which saw embassies reopen, direct flights resume and companies do business after half a century of cold war hostility.
Addressing the Senate foreign relations committee in Washington on Tuesday, Tillerson testified that Obama’s reforms effectively removed pressure on Raúl Castro’s regime to alter its behaviour.
“Cuba has failed to improve its own human rights record, political opponents continue to be imprisoned, dissidents continue to be jailed, women continue to be harassed.
“So what we have to achieve in approaching Cuba is, if we’re going to sustain the sunny side of this relationship, Cuba must – absolutely must – begin to address its human rights challenges.”
An interagency review of Cuba policy was still under way on Tuesday but Tillerson’s remarks gave the strongest clue yet as to the intentions of Trump, who has the power to undo Obama’s executive actions.
On Friday the president is likely to rally hardline members of Miami’s Cuban exile community while potentially delivering a setback to the activities of Airbnb, Google and other companies doing business on the island.
Fifty-five Cuban female entrepreneurs have sent joint a letter to the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, asking for her support for policies they say have empowered Cuban women and their families across the island.
But Tillerson said the Trump administration believes that the new US approach is directly supporting the Cuban government in violation of American law. “We would love to keep the sunny side, we’d love to keep it in compliance with existing statues that doesn’t lead to financial support for what we can only describe continues to be a very oppressive regime.”
The administration wants to restore the intent of legislation designed to put pressure on the regime to change, he added. “That pressure’s been, in our view, largely removed now.”
Trump is expected to retain some reforms and shelve others. The US embassy in Havana will remain open but trade with any Cuban entity linked to the military will be banned, according to a White House official who spoke to the Associated Press. There will also be a cut in the number of categories for which Americans do not need US government licenses to go to Cuba, the Associated Press reported, and the US will demand greater internet access and the release of prisoners and return of American fugitives in Cuba.
Obama’s repeal of the special Cuban immigration privileges, known as “wet foot, dry foot”, is not expected to change.
At Tuesday’s Senate hearing, Tillerson also testified that the US relationship with Russia is at “an all-time low” and deteriorating further, but he warned against closing off promising avenues of communication.
He told the committee that he is still reviewing a new package of Russia sanctions the Senate is considering in retaliation for Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and its aggression in other parts of the world, including Syria and Ukraine.
At what was ostensibly a budget hearing, the secretary of state was also forced to defend the Trump administration’s plans for cuts of nearly $19bn, or 32%, in the diplomatic and foreign aid allocations. He expected to have a plan for reorganising the state department at the end of the year. The former ExxonMobil chief executive said: “Our budget will never determine our ability to be effective. Our people will.”
But Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the committee, launched a withering assault on the Trump presidency as a threat to American leadership in the world. “My concern today, quite frankly, is that your administration will go down in the history books as being ‘present at the destruction’ of that order we have worked so hard to support – and that has so benefitted our security and prosperity and ideals,” he said.