Monday, November 20, 2017
Politics

In Miami, President Trump announces Cuba policy change

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From the heart of the nation's Cuban community, President Donald Trump pulled back on his predecessor's re-engagement with Cuba on Friday, outlining travel and business restrictions designed to choke off money to the military but leaving other policies in place.

"What you have built here — a vibrant culture, a thriving neighborhood, the spirit of adventure — is a testament to what a free Cuba could be," Trump said from Miami's Little Havana. "And with God's help, a free Cuba is what we will soon achieve."

He was joined by Vice President Mike Pence, Cuban-American politicians and Cuban dissidents, inviting one on stage and kissing her on the cheek. He asked violinist Luis Haza, whose father was killed under Fidel Castro, to perform The Star-Spangled Banner. And Trump repeatedly framed it as fulfilling a campaign pledge made last year in Miami.

"We will not be silent in the face of communist oppression any longer," he said, casting the decision in human rights concerns. "Stop jailing innocent people," Trump implored the Cuban regime. "Open yourselves to economic and political freedoms."

The shift — coming on the two-year anniversary of Trump announcing his candidacy — takes aim at President Barack Obama's 2014 decision to end decades of detachment from the island nation, and bans U.S. business with the military-run conglomerate that controls much of Cuba's economy.

Individual travel to Cuba also will be curtailed, with Trump calling for a prohibition on trips not related to academic study pursuant to a degree program and not under the auspices of an organization that sponsors "people-to-people" contact. Individuals who have already booked trips have several months before the new regulations are implemented.

Despite Trump's characterization that he was "canceling" Obama's "completely one-sided deal," it is not a wholesale reversal of the rapprochement, which has widespread public support outside the Cuban exile community.

Travel through organized groups is still permitted, as well as business unrelated to the Cuban military conglomerate known as GAESA. Planes and cruise ships can still head to Cuba, and Americans are free to bring home rum and cigars. Diplomatic posts in Havana and Washington are unaffected.

Trump also maintains Obama's decision to get rid of the "wet foot, dry foot" policy that allowed Cuban immigrants who reached U.S. soil to remain legally.

Exact regulations will not be hammered out for several months. One major component will be how tightly the U.S. government enforces requirements for travelers to keep records of financial transactions.

Trump traveled to Miami on Air Force One with two of the architects of the new policy, Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who sharply criticized Obama for giving up too much to the Cuban government for little in return.

"A year and a half ago, a president, an American president, landed in Havana, to outstretch his hand to a regime," Rubio said to boos inside Manuel Artime Theater. "Today, a new president lands in Miami to reach out his hand to the people of Cuba."

The son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio said the changes empower the people of Cuba. "So that they can enjoy the freedom and the liberty, with a very clear message: America is prepared to outstretch its hand and work with the people of Cuba, but we will not, we will not empower their oppressors."

Trump lavished praise on Rubio, who last year battled him for the GOP presidential nomination, and handed him a pen used to sign the policy directive.

"You deserve it," Trump said.

The directive orders the Treasury and Commerce departments to come up with regulations on business and travel and does not need congressional approval.

Critics said the moves could backfire by curtailing growth in Cuba's private business sector fueled by a flood of American visitors. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce criticized the move, as did some American companies.

Still others questioned why Trump hadn't taken such an interest in human rights with other countries, such as Saudi Arabia.

Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, addressed a group Friday afternoon at Tampa International Airport, where Southwest Airlines flies daily to Havana, to denounce the change.

"It will really complicate our neighbors' ability to travel to Cuba. It will make it more expensive, more costly and add bureaucratic red tape," she said. "He needs to allow Americans to be Americans and grant us our freedom to travel."

Jose E. Valiente, former chair of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, said while Trump (and Rubio) cast the changes as designed to help the Cuban people, it could end up hurting them, particularly small business owners. "If the American tourists aren't going to be coming in the numbers they expected, it's going to hurt them immediately."

A recent study found about 614,000 Cuban-Americans and other U.S. travelers went to Cuba in 2016, up 34 percent from the year before.

"Additional prohibitions and oversight on travel will only confuse Americans and dissuade them from visiting Cuba, causing significant economic hardship to Cuban entrepreneurs and average Cuban families, as well as Americans working in the hospitality sector," said Collin Laverty, president of Cuban Educational Travel, which arranges group trips to the island.

Overall, public opinion polls have shown widespread support for the diplomatic reset as well as ending the decades-old trade embargo, which remains in place.

Trump, though, cast the shift as necessary to force more change — a stance echoed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who said, "Whether it's popular or not, America must stand for freedom."

Trump once supported Obama's thaw but took a harder line during the presidential campaign, vowing in Miami to reverse course. Rubio pressed him to make good on his promise and played a critical role in developing the policy.

Politically, the two men savored victory Friday. Trump is eager to show he is getting things done despite the growing probe into Russian interference in the election and Rubio can take credit for rolling back one of Obama's signature accomplishments.

Signing his own revisions, Trump remarked: "So this says, 'strengthening the policy of the United States toward Cuba.' And I can add, 'strengthening a lot.' So this is very important, and you watch what's going to happen. Going to be a great day for Cuba."

Times staff writer Anastasia Dawson contributed to this report, which includes information from the Miami Herald.

     
   
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