Trump’s new Cuba policy is too much for some, not enough for others
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
If President Donald Trump did one thing during his Miami trip it was
stir up simmering passions about the best course for U.S. policy toward
Neither side in the emotional debate — those who favor a more hardline
approach and those who favor the former Obama administration approach —
got exactly what they wanted from Trump, although those who favor a
middle ground that aims at sanctioning the Cuban military while not
hampering Cuban Americans’ ability to travel and send money to relatives
on the island may be most pleased.
In the Manuel Artime Theater, which was festooned with American flags
and red-white-and-blue bunting, Trump told the enthusiastic crowd he was
“canceling completely” former President Barack Obama’s “one-sided deal
“The actual policy didn’t match the rhetoric in the theater,” said
Christopher Sabatini, a professor at Columbia School of International
and Public Affairs. “Many of the things that hardliners have denounced
will seemingly remain in place.” He said he was surprised that Trump
hadn’t instituted a further rollback of the Obama opening, perhaps
curtailing cruises to Cuba or restricting embassy operations.
Trump’s new Cuba policy left big chunks of the Obama policy of
engagement intact, while instituting a policy designed to economically
starve important Cuban military enterprises from cash they take in from
American visitors and, to a lesser extent, U.S. businesses.
The Cuba Study Group, which is made up of business executives and
professionals who support engagement, took a glass half-full view of the
“President Trump’s announcement today indicates how far the Cuba policy
debate has moved, despite intense pressure from scarce Congressional
hardliners. Many of the gains of normalization remain intact,” the
organization said in a statement. “At best, this is a partial victory
for those who hoped to reverse increased bilateral ties.”
But instead of “half-measures” proposed by the president, the group said
Trump should pursue a policy of full normalization with the island.
“Restricting U.S. travel isolates Cubans from knowledge of American
political, economic, and human rights norms.”
For Everett E. Briggs, a retired U.S. ambassador, the new Trump policy
didn’t go far enough.
“I regret that he did not go further in adopting the changes to Obama’s
misbegotten actions I and a number of former State Department colleagues
advocated earlier this year — namely, to bring U.S. policy into line
with existing U.S. law — the Cuba Democracy Act and the Cuba Liberty and
Democracy Restoration Act,” he said. “Exempting Cuban ports and airports
from the prohibition on dealing with Cuba is a mistake.”
“Some will probably say this is not enough, but this is a good start,”
said Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba.
“Today the dismantling of Obama’s outrageous orders have begun.”
Trump’s policy retained the Obama-era’s travel opening for Americans,
which allows them to visit Cuba if they fall into 12 categories of
travel such as family visits, and religious, humanitarian and
educational trips. It does, however, eliminate the ability for Americans
to pursue individual people-to-people educational trips.
Calzon said he would be watching closely how the new Cuba policy is
implemented.” Some people, he said, use religious exchanges as disguised
tourism and a pretext to go to nightclubs. One of the cornerstones of
the Trump policy is to allow travel but to strictly enforce “the
statutory ban on tourism.”
New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez also called the new Cuba policy
“a step in the right direction.” He said he was pleased that the
president made the return of Joanne Chesimard, a fugitive from justice
now living in Cuba, contingent on future engagement with Cuba.
Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur, is a former Black Panther who
escaped from a New Jersey prison where she was serving a life sentence
for murdering a state trooper.
“The president continues to refer to the Cuban people and Cuban
Americans, but ignores polls that indicate that 75% of Americans support
the rapprochement between Havana and Washington or that the vast
majority of Cubans on the island reject the policy of aggression that
has marked relations between the two countries during the last decades,”
stated Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba.
The headline in an article posted on CubaDebate, an official Cuban
website, took Trump’s speech rhetoric at face value: “Donald Trump
cancels Obama’s bilateral agreement with Cuba.”
On the streets of Miami, reaction was mixed.
Donald Trump supporter Dulce Martínez speaks about her past life in Cuba
under the Castro government during President Donald Trump’s visit to Miami.
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“Trump is the one who is going to take the communism out of Cuba,” said
Robert Linares, a 47-year-old warehouse manager whose parents were born
But across the way outside the Manuel Artime Theater, Javier Lopez
Rodriguez, a Cuban-born substitute teacher who works in Miami-Dade,
protested Trump’s new policy, yelling his displeasure into a megaphone.
“It goes against the spirit of the constitution,” he said. “Maybe not
the wording explicitly, but the spirit when it was signed. In Saudi
Arabia, they violate more human rights than in Cuba.”
Humberto Arguelles, president of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association,
said Trump showed he has “great interest” in pursuing improved human
rights in Cuba.
“What Trump did is of great value because it shows that the cause of
liberty in Cuba is still alive,” he said at a press conference at the
Miami Hispanic Cultural Arts Center following Trump’s event.
Although Trump said that “we will never turn our backs on the Cuban
people,” some analysts said his new policy could end up stifling the
small private businesses the president emphatically says he wants to
“We are encouraged that the Trump administration wants to help Cuba’s
private sector. Unfortunately, the people who will be most negatively
impacted by this directive are Cuban entrepreneurs,” said James
Williams, president of Engage Cuba.
“The confusion that will surround this policy will undoubtedly stifle
U.S. demand to travel to the island,” he said, and that in turn will
hurt private businesses that engage with Americans.
The prohibition on doing business with military enterprises is
far-reaching in the tourism sector. The military conglomerate GAESA
controls about 40 percent of hotel rooms in Cuba, the largest fleet of
Chinese-made tourism buses, most government shops and restaurants in
picturesque Old Havana, the HavanaAuto rental car company, gas stations,
and even the ServiCentro stores where visitors might pick up a bottle of
That could be the “poison pill,” of Trump’s new policy, said Pedro
Freyre, a Miami lawyer who represents U.S. companies that have done
business with Cuba or are trying to strike deals.
American travelers may be so confused about what they can and can’t do
and where they can stay or eat or which taxi to hail that they may
decide to stay home, he said.
Pro-engagement supporters criticized a return to sanctions and pressure
to force the Cuban government’s hand. Taking a sanctions approach, they
said, may backfire and won’t result in the United States getting a
better deal for Americans or the Cuban people.
“I think this reignites the confrontational dynamics between Cuba and
the United States,” said Freyre. “This fuels the extremes on both sides.”
“Reversing course on Cuba will dash the hopes of millions on the island
who felt empowered after Obama’s visit. It will be rejected by
two-thirds of the American public — Republicans and Democrats alike — as
well as by a majority of Cuban Americans in Florida,” said Jose W.
Fernandez, a New York lawyer who served as assistant secretary of state
for economic, energy and business affairs in the Obama administration.
“It goes against the advice of U.S. military experts,” he said. “And it
will open the door to Russian and Chinese influence while shutting out
Trump has forged his policy in the name of his preoccupation with human
rights abuses and lack of religious freedom in Cuba. Although some Cuban
dissidents do favor pressure tactics, international human rights
organizations and some members of Congress aren’t buying the notion that
less engagement and pressure are the best way to achieve that goal.
“You can’t improve human rights by withdrawing from a relationship with
Cuba,” said Minnesota Republican Rep. Tom Emmer, an early Trump
supporter who favors lifting the embargo.
“He [Trump] must be listening to a very small group of voices — perhaps
as few as three in Congress,” said Emmer. “Actually less than 10,” he
South Florida Republican Reps. Mario Diaz Balart and Carlos Curbelo and
Sen. Marco Rubio accompanied Trump on the Air Force One flight from
“It is clear to us that there are real human rights abuses in Cuba and
there have been for many years, but a policy of isolation does nothing
to improve the human rights situation,” said Geoff Thale of the
Washington Office on Latin America.
“The only chance to really improve the record of the Cuban government is
by dismantling the embargo as a precondition, and to have the US
government, as well as European and Latin democracies exercising
multilateral pressure, not in the form of a multilateral embargo, but
through diplomatic pressure to expose the record of the Cuban government
on human rights,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the
Americas division of Human Rights Watch.
Trump’s new Cuba policy also comes at a time when the administration has
proposed dropping funding for Cuban democracy programs from $20 million
to $0 for Fiscal 2018.
“There is no money for Cuban democracy programs established by the Helms
Burton Act,” said José “Pepe” Hernández, president of the Cuban American
National Foundation and a director of the Foundation for Human Rights in
Cuba. “We need to make sure the opposition continues to be supported.”
Money that was budgeted this year for material support of human rights
and opposition activists inside Cuba also hasn’t been fully disbursed,
he said, and some organizations that bid for contracts to aid activists
on the island were turned down. “The money exists but not much has been
put into use,” he said.
On the surface, Trump has left most of the Obama administration’s Cuba
travel policies intact. One change that’s spelled out is that
individuals may no longer undertake educational trips whose purpose is
to interact with the Cuban people on their own. Anyone traveling under
that category must now be a part of a group.
MIAMI HERALD REPORTER MARTIN VASSOLO CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi
Source: Trump’s Cuba policy arouses passionate responses | Miami Herald