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6/16/17

Cuba: Trump torpedoes Obama Cuba policy, takes hardline on military and travel

Trump: reestablish hard-line on Cuba
The Miami Herald reports that in an overhaul of one of his predecessor's signature legacies, President Donald Trump will redraw U.S. policy toward Cuba on Friday, tightening travel restrictions for Americans that had been loosened under President Barack Obama and banning U.S. business transactions with Cuba's vast military conglomerate.

Trump's changes are intended to sharply curtail cash flow to the Cuban government and pressure its communist leaders to let the island's fledgling private sector grow. Diplomatic relations reestablished by Obama, including reopened embassies in Washington and Havana, will remain. Travel and money sent by Cuban Americans will be unaffected, but Americans will be unable to spend money in state-run hotels or restaurants tied to the military, a significant prohibition.

Trump is expected to sign the presidential policy directive Friday, surrounded by Cuban-American supporters at Miami's Manuel Artime Theater, a venue named after one of the late leaders of the Brigade 2506 Bay of Pigs veterans whose group offered Trump their endorsement last October after he promised exiles a "better deal." The Miami Herald obtained a draft of the eight-page directive Thursday.

In his remarks, Trump plans to cite human-rights violations in Cuba as justification for the new U.S. approach. Dissidents say government repression has increased.

"The Cuban people have long suffered under a Communist regime that suppresses their legitimate aspirations for freedom and prosperity and fails to respect the essential human dignity of all Cubans," says Trump's directive, which calls the policy a set of "initial actions" by his administration.

While not a full reversal of Obama's historic Cuba rapprochement, Trump's recast U.S. policy hews closer to the hard line espoused by Cuban-American Republicans who derided Obama's 2014 policy as a capitulation. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was instrumental in drafting Trump's changes, with help from Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. Other Cuban-American lawmakers started getting briefed on the policy Thursday.

"If we're going to have more economic engagement with Cuba, it will be with the Cuban people," Rubio told the Miami Herald.

He called the new policy a strategic, long-term attempt to force aging Cuban military and intelligence officers to ease their grip on the island's economy as a younger generation of leaders prepares to take over.

"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 said. "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."

After decades of sanctions failed to push Fidel and Raul Castro out of power, Obama contended a Cuba more closely tied to the U.S. would no longer be able blame its economic woes on yanqui "imperialism." His backers, including prominent Miami Cuban-Americans, implored the Trump administration to give existing policy more time to play out. Like Rubio, they argued only a flourishing Cuban private sector would eventually lead to political change; where the two sides disagree is on how best to encourage private growth.

Trump's policy will not reinstate wet foot, dry foot, the policy that allowed Cuban immigrants who reached U.S. soil to remain in the country. It will not alter the U.S. trade embargo, which can only be lifted by Congress. And it will not limit travel or money sent by Cuban Americans, as former President George W. Bush did - though fewer Cuban government officials will be allowed to come to the U.S. and receive money than under Obama."You can't put the genie back in the bottle 100 percent," a senior White House official told reporters Thursday. "It's not that he's opposed to any deal with Cuba; he's opposed to a bad deal with Cuba."

Outright tourism to Cuba is prohibited by the embargo, but Obama had relaxed travel rules, allowing non-Cuban Americans to go under one of 12 legally authorized categories, such as family visits, professional research or educational activities. The Obama administration relied on what was effectively an honor system in which travelers self-reported their trip's purpose.

Under Trump's rules, travelers will be subject to a Treasury Department audit of their trip to ensure they fall under one of the permitted categories. Educational trips and so-called "people-to-people" group exchanges will fall under greater scrutiny, with educational groups once again having to travel with a guide from a U.S. organization sponsoring the trip, a requirement the Obama policy had effectively eliminated. Unlike under Obama, individuals will no longer be able to travel under the "people-to-people" category.

Stays at hotels run by the Cuban military conglomerate - many brand-name hotels - will be prohibited, but a senior White House official suggested travelers who had already booked trips would be accommodated.

The Treasury and Commerce departments will have 90 days to start writing the new rules, according to the draft directive.

The Hill Publication notes:  "Recent events indicate that the Kremlin may be seeking to return in full force. Last month Russia resumed oil shipments to Cuba for the first time in more than a decade. The Kremlin has again become the island’s savior amid a Cuban energy crisis caused by the chaos in Venezuela, its largest supplier of subsidized petroleum. This alone should set off alarm bells in the Trump White House.

Equally troubling, Putin has agreed to forgive 90 percent of Cuba’s $32 billion debt to the Soviet Union and has signed multiple agreements to invest in infrastructure developments and oil exploration. There are also reports that Russia is in conversations with Cuba to reopen a military base near Havana, which would result in a fully equipped signals intelligence station. A close military alliance between Russia and Cuba could have grave security consequences for the United States.

One obvious way to mitigate Russian influence in our hemisphere is through enhanced engagement with Cuba. Over the past two and a half years, the United States has charted a new course with Cuba, restoring diplomatic relations and allowing for expanded travel and trade. As two retired U.S. military generals wrote in an op-ed in Politico last month, cooperation with Cuba has been a game changer for regional security. Since the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations, our two governments have signed nine formal bilateral agreements on issues related to matters of national security, including human trafficking, counter-narcotics, and cybersecurity. Why cast aside this opportunity to coordinate on cross-border and maritime law enforcement, a top priority for President Trump, and instead cede the playing field to Putin?"

Read more: Trump recasts Cuba policy, takes harder line than Obama on military, travel

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