Trump Administration Levels Punitive New Sanctions On Cuba, Plans To Restrict Travel

The Trump administration today announced sweeping new sanctions against Cuba, taking a major step toward fully dismantling the policy of engagement initiated during the Obama administration and signaling U.S. intentions to foster regime change on the island. The changes will severely restrict the ability of Americans to travel to the island, limit the amount of funds people can send to relatives in Cuba and also open the door to lawsuits against companies doing business with Cuba.

In a blunt speech in Coral Gables, National Security Advisor John Bolton said that “the twilight hour of socialism has arrived in our hemisphere.” After the collapse of the Venezuelan government of Nicolas Maduro, Bolton predicted, “we know that Cuba will be next.”

Bolton announced that “the Department of the Treasury will implement further regulatory changes to restrict non-family travel to Cuba, or in other words, ‘veiled tourism,’ ” strongly implying that tours, cruise ship stops and travel to special events—such as the annual Habanos cigar festival—would soon be prohibited. He also announced that remittances, unlimited as part of Obama’s policy of supporting the Cuban private sector, would now be capped at $4,000 a year.

It is unclear when these new policies would go into effect.

The survival of the Cuban private sector, which now makes up one-third of the nation’s workforce, has depended on an influx of U.S. travelers to the island after President Obama normalized commercial plane service and expanded loopholes for legal travel in the embargo laws during his last two years in office. Last year, more than 600,000 U.S. citizens visited Cuba, in addition to more than 400,000 Cuban-Americans.

In addition to those sanctions, the State Department also announced that it would fully implement provisions in legislation passed more than 23 years ago meant to deter foreign investment on the island.

“Any person or company doing business in Cuba should heed this announcement,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned today.

Passed in 1996, the Helms-Burton act contains a section known as Title III that permits former Cuban-American owners of expropriated land and businesses in Cuba to sue foreign and U.S. companies whose current investments and operations relate to those properties. Fearing thousands of lawsuits against companies from allied countries such as Canada, Germany, Mexico and Spain, the Clinton administration insisted on attaching a waiver clause to this section of the legislation, permitting U.S. presidents to suspend, every six months, implementation of Title III.

Until now, every president since Clinton, including President Trump, has waived this section of the law, out of concern for the legal chaos that could ensue, and the bilateral tensions with governments whose companies would be targeted by legal action.

A State Department report issued shortly after the legislation was passed more than 20 years ago predicted between 70,000 and 200,000 lawsuits could be filed. The Justice Department has already certified some 8,000 complaints as having merit. Lawsuits could be filed as soon as May 2, when the current waiver of Title III expires.

Already the European Union has warned it will “consider all options at its disposal to protect its legitimate interests,” including calling for World Trade Organization action.

The State Department also said this week that it would begin to deny visas to executives of foreign corporations dealing in “trafficked companies” from coming to the United States, putting further pressure on foreign companies to pull out of Cuba, or differ plans to invest there.

The new sanctions were applauded by hardliner politicians from Florida such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-FL) who have worked closely with the Trump White House to roll back the Obama-era policies of political, cultural and economic engagement.

But advocates of normalized relations between Washington and Havana denounced the new punitive measures as a return to the failed policy of aggression and a flagrant political effort to mobilize Trump’s hardline Cuban-American base in the Miami community.

President Trump was attempting to “appease fringe hardliners in South Florida ahead of the 2020 election,” said James Williams, who heads Engage Cuba, a lobby that promotes normal commercial ties. He noted that “U.S. travel and remittances are the lifeblood of the private sector entrepreneurs in Cuba. These restrictions are a cruel betrayal and a knife in the back of Cuban civil society and the prospects for a growing independent private sector in Cuba.”

The implementation of Title III also drew criticism for hurting the private sector, which the Trump administration has repeatedly claimed to support. The decision was “plain stupid,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) said in a statement. “It undercuts the emerging private sector in Cuba, which the Trump administration still pretends to support. It alienates our closest allies in Europe, Canada and Latin America, and it strengthens Cuban alliances with Russia, China and Iran. In short, Trump’s Cuba policy is driven by political expediency and an ideology that’s fifty years out of date.”

The Trump administration's new sanctions are only the latest in a series of punitive actions against Cuba this year. Last month, the State Department announced that it would no longer issue five-year visas to Cubans who have been traveling back and forth to the U.S. Now, three-month visas, good for only one trip, will be used—creating serious constraints on Cuban entrepreneurs who come to the U.S. to obtain goods, parts and machinery for the growing private sector on the island.

In late-March, the administration vetoed a historic agreement between Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation that would have allowed professional and amateur Cuban players to sign with the U.S. teams without having to defect from Cuba and leave the island.

Bolton chose to give his speech at a special luncheon before the Veterans of the Bay of Pigs Association in Miami to commemorate the 58th anniversary of the invasion. Cuba’s militia forces defeated the CIA-led exile brigade less than 72 hours after the paramilitary invasion began.

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