MIAMI — President Trump announced a new policy toward Cuba Friday that seeks to curb commercial dealings that benefit the Castro regime and could limit the freedom of some U.S. citizens to travel to the island — but leaves in place many changes implemented by his predecessor.
In a fiery speech delivered in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana, where an older generation of Cuban Americans has long objected to normalization of relations with the communist government of President Raúl Castro, Trump ticked off a litany of examples, past and present, of the regimes’ repression of its citizen.
“With God’s help a free Cuba is what we will soon achieve,” Trump said at the Manuel Artime Theater, a highly symbolic venue named after a leader of the Bay of Pigs exile invasion of Cuba in 1961, a failed U.S.-backed attempt to overthrow the revolutionary government of Fidel Castro.
Trump’s change in policy prohibits any commercial dealings with Cuba’s economically powerful military and, according to White House aides, was driven by the president’s concerns that the previous policy was enriching the Cuban military and intelligence services that contribute to repression on the island.
Through civilian-run holding companies, the Cuban military owns or controls much of the economy, particularly the tourism sector. Former president Barack Obama had allowed some transactions with the security services on grounds that money would trickle down to individual Cubans who gained employment and more contact with the outside world.
“We now hold the cards. The previous administration’s easing of restrictions on travel and trade do not help the Cuban people,” Trump said. “They only enrich the Cuban regime.”
Significantly, a new directive signed by Trump will not affect those elements of the normalization begun by Obama in December 2014 that are popular with younger Cuban Americans and others who have taken full advantage of them. Unlimited “family” travel and money sent to private Cubans on the island will remain unchanged.
Administration officials who briefed reporters ahead of Trump’s address, on White House-imposed condition of anonymity, said no policy changes would go immediately into effect. Instead, the new presidential directive will order the Treasury and Commerce departments to begin within 30 days to write new regulations that reverse some of those Obama implemented to ease the U.S. embargo against Cuba that has remained in place for nearly 60 years. Only Congress can lift it.
Trump’s directive drew criticism outside the theater, including from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which questioned the premise that the new restrictions would lead to reforms in Cuba.
“U.S. private-sector engagement can be a positive force for the kind of change we all wish to see in Cuba,” said Myron Brilliant, the group’s executive vice president and head of international affairs. “Unfortunately, today’s moves actually limit the possibility for positive change on the island and risk ceding growth opportunities to other countries that, frankly, may not share America’s interest in a free and democratic Cuba that respects human rights. “
Trump cast his action as the fulfillment of a campaign promise.
“Last year, I promised to be a voice against repression … and a voice for the freedom of the Cuban people,” he said. “ You heard that pledge … and here I am.”
A packed theater that included Cuban dissidents, dignitaries and other guests gave Trump a raucous reception. Among those who praised Trump ahead of his appearance were Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Florida’s first Cuban-American lieutenant governor, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a one-time rival for the GOP presidential nomination who lobbied Trump hard to largely stick with a position he advocated during the campaign.
“I want to express our deep gratitude to a man that’s really become a friend of mine,” Trump said of Rubio. “He’s one tough competitor”
Trump’s rhetoric in many cases outstripped the reality of what his order will accomplish.
Asked whether companies that have already signed Cuban contracts, such as Starwood Hotels and Resorts, should expect to lose money, an adminisraton official said, “that will be handled in the specifics of regulations by Treasury and Commerce.” But “the administration’s intent,” the official said, “is not to disrupt existing transactions that have [already] occurred.”
Regulations allowing U.S. commercial flights and cruise ship to travel to Cuba will not be affected, the officials said. Diplomatic relations established by Obama will remain.
The restrictions on dealing with the military could significantly affect American travel, although the military has already begun to reorganize its ownership of some businesses and entities in anticipation of such changes. Airbnb, which has built a multimillion-dollar business among Cubans who rent out rooms to foreign visitors, is not affected by the new policy. Americans will also still be allowed to bring back unlimited amounts of Cuban products — including rum and cigars — for personal use.
But the ease with which U.S. citizens have been able to travel to Cuba over the past two years could also be affected by a significant change in Treasury’s control over their activities. Although the U.S. government does not technically prohibit Cuban travel, Treasury regulations under the embargo prohibit the expenditure of U.S. dollars without a special license. Successive presidents have eased and tightened that prohibition, and Obama significantly loosened it by allowing individuals to “self-declare” the purpose of their travel in one of a dozen allowed categories, including for educational, commercial, or “support for the Cuban people” purposes.
While tourist travel remained officially banned, Obama also allowed a broad category of “people to people” visits to Cuba. Trump’s new directive still allows individual travel in all but that category, and reverts to an earlier policy of requiring “people to people” visits only in a Treasury-licensed group.
While Americans have long been required to be able to “authenticate” the purpose of any visit to Cuba, and to keep receipts and records for five years, the rules were rarely enforced. The White House officials indicated Trump would call for a tighter enforcement.
The officials said that the aging Cuban government, in which Castro is due to be replaced next year by a designated successor, can return to favor with the United States by improving its human rights record, including lifting restrictions on dissent, releasing political prisoners and moving toward democracy.
Trump has conspicuously shied away from emphasizing human rights concerns in other countries with similarly dismal records, including Saudi Arabia. During his visit to Riyadh last month, he said he had not come to “lecture” about any country’s internal policies.
Asked why he appears to have a different attitude toward Cuba, an official said that “the president has made clear” that he will call out “repressive regimes in this hemisphere,” and fulfill a promise he made last year on the campaign trail to reverse elements of what he called Obama’s “bad deal” with Havana.
Upon arriving in Miami ahead of his speech, Trump emerged from Air Force One to the cheers of about 100 supporters. From behind a barricade, they shouted, “Trump! Trump! Trump!” as he walked down the stairs.
Waiting to greet the president were Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and three Cuban dissidents, important symbolism for Trump’s effort to show Friday that he is standing with the people of the island.
DeYoung reported from Washington.