New York Daily News
The U.S. feels like it is in a new Cold War, and the Trump administration is getting a little nostalgic with its policy towards Cuba.
President Trump is planning to announce changes in its relationship with Havana on Friday, including restrictions on Americans’ travel to the island and doing business with the Cuban military, according to accounts of new policies published Thursday.
The Obama administration made historic improvements in ties with Cuba's repressive regime since restarting diplomatic relations in 2014, a move that ended decades of estrangement from one of the U.S.’ closest neighbors. They do not go as far as some feared, but the Trump policy changes laid out in the Miami Herald and Politico on Thursday take a harsher stance than the relative rapprochement in recent years and could dramatically affect U.S. business on the island.
Part of the Obama re-engagement included giving ordinary Americans the ability to travel to Cuba under one of 12 reasons, including educational trips. Those trips were not subject to strict scrutiny by authorities, meaning some visits to the island verged on tourism, still illegal under the long-standing embargo against communist Castro regimes criticized for human rights abuses.
Trump’s coming changes will mandate that travelers will have to keep records of all their transactions in Cuba for five years in case the Treasury Department audits them to determine if their trips do actually fit in one of the allowed categories, Politico reported Thursday. Educational trips will reportedly be required to travel with a guide from a U.S. sponsoring organization, according to the Herald.
The influx in Americans going to see the sights has resulted in the rebirth of cruises and air service from the U.S. to the island, with nonstop flights available from New York to Havana. Delta Airlines told the Daily News they are waiting to see Trump's policies before commenting on them, but said that since December it has taken more than 112,000 people to Cuba via JFK Airport, Atlanta and Miami.
Those travels and visitors’ ability to use Cuba’s military-run bank are not believed to be affected by the Trump changes, though the Herald reports that the administration’s new policy will include a broad restriction on interactions with the military branch running the majority of Cuba’s economy.
The powerful Grupo de Administracion Empresarial S.A also runs most foreign hotels, meaning that Marriott’s Starwood Hotels could lose the special license from the Obama administration it got to operate in Havana. Americans who go to Cuba could face problems when they return if they are found to have patronized the GAES, rather than privately owned businesses such as inns.
But Bob Guild, the vice president of New Jersey-based charter travel company Marazul, told the News he is unsure what Trump's new direction means, and whether it would affect dealings such as booking hotels through non-military tourist groups. The businessman, who opposes the Cuban embargo generally, also expressed doubts that American authorities would have the authority to check for any possible violations by individual passengers. "Are they really going to hold up Homeland Security to look for the program of someone coming back from Cuba?" he said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Miami Republican who proposed similar restrictions in a bill two years ago, said that the goal of the policy change is to help Cuba’s private sector. “The pro-engagement groups point to the expansion of privately owned small business as a major defense of the current policy. This new policy helps them. It puts these private businesses at an advantage, because Americans can only spend money with them, not the military monopoly,” he told POLITICO.
The restrictions may have a chilling effect on Americans looking to travel to Cuba, which enjoyed large support from both Democrats and Republicans. Roughly 65% of voters surveyed support Obama’s Cuba policy, including 64% of Republicans, according to a poll released by Engage Cuba, which favors a change to the U.S.'s pre-Obama policies.
"This policy was clearly written by people who have never been to Cuba, at least not in this century. Because if they had, they'd know that the only thing that restricting travel will do is devastate Cubans working in the private sector who have relied on American visitors to provide for their families," the group's president James Williams said in a statement Thursday.
Cuba's political landscape will also shift in the coming year, with Raul Castro, the brother of Fidel and ruler during the decades-long dictator's fading years, planning to retire next February. Despite those changes, Trump himself will harken back to the 1960s when he announces his new policy on Friday. He is set to make his Cuba speech at the Manuel Artime Theater in Miami, named after a Cuban-American exile who led the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
Guild said he views Trump's policy change as a political move meant to please potential allies such as Rubio and fellow Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, as well as another effort to oppose Obama. "My wife says if Trump could find all the turkeys that had been pardoned by Obama at Thanksgiving, he would murder them," he said.