Politics

White House to Tighten Cuba Rules on Travel, Business

Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., come at the issue of normalizing relations with Cuba from different angles. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

President Donald Trump plans to outline Friday a tougher stance with Havana by partially tightening travel and business rules that had been eased under the Obama administration to normalize relations with communist Cuba.

The changes were made with input from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American and a harsh critic of the Cuban government. But even senior administration officials admitted in a briefing with reporters Thursday that “You can’t put the genie back into the bottle,” referring to some Obama-era policies that have become popular.

Trump plans to tell an audience in Miami that his administration will tighten travel restrictions on Americans who want to visit Cuba and restrict U.S. companies’ business dealings with entities owned by Cuban military and intelligence services, senior White House officials told reporters. As a condition of the briefing, the three officials asked for anonymity.

Business lobbyists that favor expanding ties with Cubasaid Thursday they will take a wait and see approach to the changes. Companies like Airbnb said they will scrutinize the new policies and regulations to see if doing business in Cuba makes sense anymore.

In October 2016, Trump won the endorsement of veterans of the unsuccessful U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. The veterans group, an organization of Cuban emigres, backs a hard line on Cuba. The White House officials said the Friday announcement will make good on a promise Trump made to reverse President Barack Obama’s policies and regulations normalizing some aspects of the U.S.-Cuba relationship.

“The president has tasked his Cabinet to work together to improve what we consider to be President Obama’s bad deal,” a senior White House official said.

“The basic policy driver was his concern that the previous policy was enriching the Cuban military and intelligence services that contribute so much to oppression on the island,'' another senior official added. "That’s the opposite of what he wanted to achieve, which is to have the benefits of any economic commerce with the United States go to the Cuban people.”

Trump will sign a directive requiring the Commerce and Treasury departments to issue regulations spelling out the travel and business restrictions. Enforcement will take effect once the regulations are finalized. For example, someone heading to Cuba next week on an individual people-to-people visit and self-certifying that it is for educational reasons could still go.

The new regulations will end these individual person-to-person trips and require travelers who meet other categories of allowable travel to keep detailed records. Eliminating the individual travel category is designed to reduce the likelihood of tourism travel — a type of economic activity banned by the U.S. embargo and a combination of sanctions against Cuba, the officials said. The travel records would be subject to federal audits.

Also, U.S. travelers who stay at hotels or facilities operated by the Cuban military government would be subject to scrutiny by the administration. American businesses, unless covered by exemptions, would be in trouble with the U.S. government for business transactions with hotels or other entities operated by the Cuban military or intelligence services.

One White House senior official said that all the regulatory and policy changes initiated by Obama from December 2014 through 2016 would be difficult to undo. Obama announced in 2014 that secret negotiations with then-President Fidel Castro, aided by Pope Francis, would lead to an easing but not ending of some restrictions on travel, banking and commerce under a more than 50-year embargo. The travel changes are popular with the general public.

Officials said the changes are intended to do the following:

  • Deny U.S. dollars to the Cuban government.
  • Increase pressure on President Raul Castro to end human rights abuse.
  • Allow free elections.
  • Free Cuban political prisoners.
  • Return U.S. fugitives to the homeland.
  • Institute changes that will convert the government-run economy to one dominated by private businesses operated by Cuban citizens.

Several Obama policies will remain. The United States will keep its embassy open in Havana and allow the Cubans to maintain an embassy in Washington.

Policies on U.S. commercial air flights and cruise ship travel to Cuba will remain as well. The officials who conducted the briefing said those industries will be exempted from a broader crackdown on U.S. companies doing business with Cuban military and intelligence services. Those services control docking fees and other fees necessary to provide travel service.

Trump will also keep a change Obama made in January that denies Cubans the automatic right to stay in the United States. Before Obama made the change, Cuban immigrants arriving without visas were allowed to stay in the United States in what was called the "wet foot, dry foot" policy.

Trump officials said the changes come after a four-month interagency review and consultations with lawmakers in both parties. Rubio told the Miami Herald on Thursday that Trump’s tougher line would increase pressure for substantial reforms.

“All the pressure comes from American business interests that go to Cuba, see the opportunities and then come back here and lobby us to lift the embargo,” Rubio told the Herald. “I’m trying to reverse the dynamic: I’m trying to create a Cuban business sector that now goes to the Cuban government and pressures them to create changes. I’m also trying to create a burgeoning business class independent of the government.”

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