MIAMI — President Donald Trump Friday charted his own course for more confrontational relations with the Castro-led government in Cuba with a speech in Miami.
The speech, which came as the President signed a directive outlining his posture towards Cuba, is the latest attempt by the Trump administration to chip away at former President Barack Obama’s legacy. Obama spent the last two years of his presidency looking to warm relations with Cuba, including a trip to the island in 2016.
The change in posture, however, is only a partial shift from Obama’s policy.
Diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba will remain open, as will the newly opened embassies in Washington and Havana. And there will be no further restrictions on the types of goods that Americans can take out of Cuba, including the country’s popular rum and cigars.
The Trump administration will begin strictly enforcing the authorized exemptions that allow travel between the US and Cuba and prohibit commerce with Cuban businesses owned by the military and intelligence services. The President also directed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to convene a task force on expanding Internet access on the island and reiterate the United States’ opposition to efforts in the United Nations to lift the Cuban embargo until more is done to honor human rights.
None of these new regulations take effect immediately, a White House official said, adding that government agencies are expected to officially issue the regulatory amendments in the coming months.
“The policy isn’t going to do anything new,” a source from the office of one Cuban American lawmaker complained. “It’s pretty weak.”
Ahead of Friday’s remarks, the Cuban government — including Cuban President Raul Castro — is signaling a willingness to negotiate with Trump.
“We know they have a different view of the world,” a Cuban official told CNN. “We understand that.”
Changes in policy
Obama, after years of clandestine work with the Castro regime, announced in 2014 that the United States would re-establish diplomatic relations and reopen the American embassy in Havana, which was closed in 1961 following the Cuban revolution. The announcement led Obama to visit Cuba in 2016, making him the first sitting president to visit the island in more than 50 years.
The moved allowed for more Americans to travel to Cuba, with US air carriers marketing commercial flights direct to the island and cruise ships to port in the nation. The thaw also allowed Americans to bring more goods back from the island nation.
Trump was personally invested in drafting the plans on Cuba, multiple aides told CNN, with one adding that the President deeply believes that the changes Obama announced in 2014 were a “bad deal for the United States and a bad deal for the Cuban people.”
“It has not led to greater freedom in Cuba,” the official said. “I don’t think you would see him go back to the embargo wholesale, look for ways to leverage America’s influence over Cuba in a way that will encourage greater freedom for the Cuban people and economic interaction.”
Limits on business
Trump’s new policy will directly limit commerce with GAESA, the Cuban military’s business and commerce wing. The company is run by Gen. Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, Raul Castro’s son-in-law.
That action could adversely impact hotel brands that directly compete with Trump’s business empire, making it more difficult for them expand their foothold in Cuba. Gaviota, GAESA’s tourism arm, currently operates the Four Points by Sheraton Havana, a hotel that, when it opened, was the first US hotel to open in Cuba in nearly 60 years.
Although officials said Trump’s plans were not meant to “disrupt existing transactions that have (already) occurred,” the new policy would make it difficult for any American company to expand their footprint in Cuba.
White House officials said the effort was meant to direct American business to private companies and AirBnB, the vacation rental company that began allowing Cubans rent out their homes in 2016.
And on non-Cuban American travel, a change would make Americans who travel under the Obama administration categories of permitted travel subject to a Treasury Department audit, a move that could have a cooling effect on travel as it adds a potential layer of inconvenience to travelers.
Marco Rubio, who joined Trump on Air Force One on Friday, spent months working to push Trump toward more strict rules and though Trump and Rubio sparred — at times personally — during the 2016 campaign, the President heralded the Rubio’s views on Cuban relations after a February dinner.
“We had dinner with Sen. Rubio and his wife, who was, by the way, lovely, and we had a very good discussion about Cuba because we have very similar views on Cuba,” Trump said, adding that “Cuban people” were “very good” to him in the 2016 election.
Rubio touted Trump on Friday before arriving in Miami.
“His objective is to support the Cuban people by driving US visitors to small business they own so they can become independent of regime,” Rubio said on Twitter. “That is why no direct transactions will be allowed with the businesses owned & operated by the military monopoly or its affiliates.”
Trump said throughout the 2016 campaign that he was willing to rollback diplomatic relations with the communist regime in Cuba. Especially in Southern Florida, where Cubans make up a key voting bloc for Republicans, Trump railed on Obama for building relations with the Castros.
Trump has long hanged his understanding of the deal between the United States and Cuba on his “Cuban friends” in Florida, whom he said throughout the campaign supported him over Democrat Hillary Clinton. To a degree, he was right: Trump did beat the former secretary of state in Florida, providing the effective knock out blow to Clinton on Election Night.
But Republicans were not unified behind Trump’s action.
Sen. Jeff Flake, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, panned Trump on Friday.
“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. “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.”