Foreign Policy

Why some Miamians, dissidents cheer Trump’s Cuba changes

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President Trump today reshaped U.S. policy toward Cuba, from Miami, announcing the intended overhaul of many of President Obama’s liberalizations, calling it a “cancellation” of previous policy. Specifically the president is restricting travel of some Americans to the island, and thereby stemming the flow of money to Cuba’s military-run tourism.

Trump’s policy directive keeps a campaign promise to roll back the Obama reopening to reduce tourism cash to the government.

By prohibiting transactions with businesses and hotels controlled by the Cuban military and security services, Trump is looking to economically squeeze the Castro government into reforming, just months before Cuban President Raul Castro is set to retire.

The changes that Trump is introducing will have to be ironed out in regulations during the next few months.

The president unveiled a series of “very specific benchmarks” that  President Castro needs to meet in order to negotiate with the U.S. 

Optics matter: Cuba’s exile community has long given up on changes to the communist government, but with Castro’s departure, Trump’s changes, which preserve the diplomatic openings of Obama, sound an optimistic note.

Florida’s Governor Rick Scott told a supportive audience “America will always stand for freedom.” He spoke after Senator Marco Rubio contrasted the Obama and Trump policies. Trump said that Miami is a testament to what a free Cuba will be and referred to “Operation Peter Pan” program, the exodus between 1960 and 1962 that airlifted more than 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children to the U.S and the Women in White or ladies in white, who protest in Cuba.

Human rights groups and dissidents in Cuba have reported a rise in arrests and abuses since the U.S. travel policies were relaxed, but many differ on the response.

Human Rights Watch, critical of the proposed changes, nonetheless writes, “Cuba remains a highly repressive country. It represses dissent and discourages public criticism.” But many dissident groups welcomed the changes, which intend to direct U.S. tourist dollars to individuals instead of to the government and call for direct pay for Cuban workers, free elections, the handing over of U.S. fugitives, and the release of political prisoners.

 U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley weighed in, saying “American dollars must not be used to support the Cuban military and regime.”

Trump also keeps in place the limits on what was called “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy, the still-in-law Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966; in Miami, he said that he will keep the safeguards in place that protect Cubans from risking their lives in illegal migration to the U.S.

The most significant change in the order signed today is the end of individual travel known as “people to people,” which Trump advisers, including Rubio, believe has been used to allow tourist travel, which continues to be prohibited by U.S. law under the embargo.

What will not change under the Trump rollback is diplomatic relations and many of the changes that Obama made: The U.S. embassy in Havana will remain, as will travel by Cuban Americans and the 12 categories of American travel such as for journalists; the status of the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo bay; the restricted migration of Cubans to the U.S.; and, the purchase of rum, cigars and art by Americans who are authorized to travel.

Neither opening nor closing doors has affected Cuba’s generally closed society and one ruler approach to governing. Whether the Trump changes will help human rights and the Cuban private sector flourish is not clear, but the changes are certain to begin a debate in Cuba at a time of transition. 

Pamela Falk, a reporter and academic, is former staff director of a subcommittee of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee and holds a J.D. from Columbia School of Law and a Ph.D. from New York University. She can be reached @PamelaFalk.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

Tags Cuba Cuba-U.S. relations Donald Trump dry feet policy Fidel Castro Marco Rubio Marco Rubio Raúl Castro sanctions wet feet
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