President Trump announced a slew of new restrictions on Friday to curtail travel and commercial ties between the U.S. and Cuba, delivering on a campaign promise he made to roll back former President Barack Obama’s opening with the communist regime.
The shift in U.S. policy, which was unveiled in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, comes after a nearly five-month review of Obama’s policies toward the island nation. But the changes still leave many of the past president’s changes in place.
“I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” Trump said.
The new restrictions are largely aimed at tightening travel rules and stemming funds directed toward the Cuban military. Trump, who received the endorsment of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association in his campaign and spoke at the Manuel Artime Theater, which is named for the group's leader, had threatened to reverse the rapprochement if the communist-ruled government did not adopt changes.
"Last year, I promised to be a voice against repression... and a voice for the freedom of the Cuban people," the president said. "you went out and you voted. And here I am, like I promised. I promised."
Trump had been weighing a crack down on the Cuban regime for months, but the administration faced internal divisions about just how far to go in reversing Obama's historic policy.
Under Trump's new directive, the administration will prohibit financial transactions that benefit the Cuban military business arm, known as the Grupo de Adminstración Empresarial (GAESA), in an effort to restrict the flow of money to the oppressive elements of Raúl Castro's government. The administration said that the move will help funnel American commerce towards free and private Cuban businesses.
Trump also said that the U.S. will not lift sanctions on Cuba unless the government meets a series of benchmarks, including the release of political prisoners, free elections and the legalization of political parties.
"The previous administration's easing of restrictions on travel and trade does not help the Cuban people. They only enrich the Cuban regime," Trump said.
Joining Trump in Miami were Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, two Florida Republicans who led a behind-the-scenes effort to pressure Trump into taking a harder line with the island nation. Rubio, speaking earlier on the stage, recounted his multiple discussions with Trump on the issue in phone calls, at a White House dinner and on Air Force One. "Six weeks ago, the president gathered with his cabinet and made a clear decision: we are going to do whatever it takes so [the Cuban people] can be free," said Rubio, who has been championing the financial restrictions with the Cuban military.
Trump will leave the U.S. Embassy in Havana and will not bring back the "wet foot, dry foot" policy that allowed Cuban migrants who made it to the U.S. to stay in the country, a policy Obama eliminated in the final days of his presidency. The U.S. will also keep Cuba off a list of state sponsors of terror. "Our embassy remains open in the hopes that our contries can forge a much better path," Trump said.
Among the new restrictions likely to impact Americans, Trump is prohibiting individual educational trips to Cuba.
So-called people-to-people trips, which enable American travelers to visit Cuba for educational purposes on their own as opposed to with a tour group, will be eliminated under the new U.S. policy. Obama allowed Americans to travel to the island nation under 12 different categories with just a general license.
Tourism to the island is still strictly prohibited, but White House officials said that people have been skirting the ban by abusing the people-to-people category.
Commercial flights, which resumed for the first time in 50 years last summer, will still continue between the U.S. and Cuba. And Americans can still self-certify under a general license that they are traveling to Cuba for legitimate reasons. White House officials also noted that Americans can still bring Cuban cigars back from their trips.
But travelers could see stepped up enforcement when they return to the U.S. They are required to maintain full schedules and keep detailed logs while in Cuba — something that is rarely checked. Senior officials warned that travelers, however, may be more “subject to audit” now.
“Our policy begins with strictly enforcing U.S. law,” Trump said. “We will enforce the ban on tourism.”
Additionally, Trump's new prohibition on financial transactions with entities tied to Cuba's military could effectively curtail some travel to Cuba as well as business there, because the military controls a large portion of the economy.
The White House says the new rules will still allow business-to-business engagement, however.
The Treasury and Commerce departments will now have 30 days to start drafting new rules that fulfill Trump’s directive.
Trump’s policy was met with fierce resistance from anti-embargo groups and human rights advocates, who fear that restoring the restrictions on travel and commerce are unlikely to improve life for the Cuban people.
They argue that moving toward a tour group model will likely prevent Americans from being able to stay in AirBnBs and private homes, from which Cubans directly benefit and profit.
“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,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba. "This policy is not only a betrayal of President Trump's 'America First' agenda and of his campaign promise to remove job-killing regulations, but will be a huge blow to the Cuban people who will suffer as a result.”
In Congress, a growing number of Republicans have been warming up to the idea of engaging with Cuba. Rural U.S. lawmakers particularly want to see agricultural trade allowed between the two countries.
Legislation was reintroduced in the Senate last month to allow Americans to travel to Cuba for tourism purposes.
The bill — backed by Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — has a total of 55 co-sponsors, including 10 Republicans. When the bill was introduced in the last session of Congress, it had eight original co-sponsors.
“Any policy change that diminishes the ability of Americans to travel freely to Cuba is not in the best interests of the United States or the Cuban people,” Flake said in a statement on Friday. “It is time Senate leadership finally allowed a vote on my bipartisan bill to fully lift these archaic restrictions which do not exist for travel by Americans to any other country in the world.”
“The bill has 55 total cosponsors and I am convinced it would pass the Senate with upwards of 70 votes,” he added.