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Trump's Cuban Policy Reversal

June 16, 2017 9:10 AM
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The president on Friday will announce changes meant to make it harder to travel and do business with the island.

President Trump will announce Friday a drastic change in the U.S.-Cuba relationship, swapping a policy of cultural exchange to bring about democratic ideals for something closer to the embargo-style policies from past decades. White House officials said Trump plans to cut off income to the Castro regime, with the hopes of bringing about free elections, by once again limiting tourism and trade to the island.

Reversing U.S.-Cuba policy was a campaign promise of Trump’s—one that has grown increasingly unpopular with the majority of Republican voters—but one that White House officials said Trump planned to keep. The largest change from current policy will be doing away with “people-to-people” exchanges, which the White House said some tourists were taking advantage of. These trips were enabled under the Obama administration so Americans could travel to Cuba without asking permission first from the U.S. government or having to schedule the trip through a licensed tour company. Trump’s new policy also prevents U.S. companies from doing business with Cuba’s Armed Forces Business Enterprises Group (GAESA), which, because it is involved with nearly every sector of the economy, will severely limit trade. Trump’s policy is expected to make an exception for U.S. companies already doing business with GAESA, so flights, cruises, and already-scheduled hotel deals will likely be exempt. The White House offered few more specifics of the policy Thursday night, leaving some to be announced by Trump, or worked out more finely by government agencies like the Department of Treasury.

The goal of the President’s plan, the White House said, is to limit resources from flowing to the Castro regime. The policy is thought to be borrowed from Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, both Republicans who represent many Cuban American voter, and both of whom have called for continuing the 50-year old trade blockade against Cuba. But Rubio and Diaz-Balart, and now the Trump administration, are in a shrinking minority.

Leading up to May 20—the date of Cuba’s 1902 independence from the U.S.—there was speculation Trump would use the moment to announce changes to U.S.-Cuba policy. When the day came and went without word, seven GOP representatives signed a letter last week that argued for keeping the current relationship on the grounds of national security. They cited nine bilateral agreements signed between the U.S. and Cuba since the thaw, including those that combat human trafficking, identification fraud, and drug smuggling. They also said if the U.S. didn’t expand into the Cuban economy, Russia and China surely would, as they’ve already begun to do. Republican voters, too, have come around, and overall more than 75 percent of Americans support the Obama administration’s policy. So why is Trump reversing it?

Much of Obama’s six major policy changes, starting in 2014, were done through executive order or regulatory changes, since only Congress can reverse the embargo. Most significantly, Obama loosened travel restrictions so that practically any American could visit Cuba, as long as their trip included educational activities, including people-to-people cultural exchange. The administration also opened trade, allowing certain medical supplies, telecommunication technology, and agricultural goods to flow between nations. At the embassy flag-raising ceremony, which announced the opening of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said there’d been “too many days of sacrifice, and, sorry, too many days of suspicion and fear.” In March of last year, Obama made a historic visit to Cuba, the first sitting president to do so since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. And as the door to trade creaked open, U.S. companies took advantage.

On his trip, Obama mentioned an Alabama business that would “be the first U.S. company to build a factory here in more than 50 years.” He was speaking of two businessmen, Horace Clemmons and Saul Berenthal, whose proposal to assemble tractors in Cuba was the first approved by the administration. Obama spoke too soon, because Cuba rejected the project (possibly because the tractor technology was 70 years old). However the government has accepted many other U.S. companies since then, all of them eager to tap into the Cuban market. Starwood Hotels and Resorts struck a deal to manage hotels in Cuba. Technology companies like Airbnb let Cubans rent their homes to tourists, and last year some 600,000 Americans visited the island. To accommodate travel, airlines like JetBlue, Southwest, and American Airlines began some 20 flights per day to Cuban cities. In the Midwest, farmers looked on eagerly, hoping for an end to the embargo and the opening of Cuba’s speculated $1 billion agricultural market.

In Cuba, the trade of technology meant internet access flourished. This undermined the Castro regime’s hold on the information, and it spurred entrepreneurism. Last year the Cuban government even legalized small- and medium-sized private businesses. In the short period it was active, the policy seemed to be doing what half a century of embargo had not for Cubans. Domestically, in the U.S., it even seemed to be changing minds.


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