Trump Expected To Restrict Trade, Travel With Cuba

Jun 12, 2017
Originally published on June 13, 2017 7:43 am

Updated at 8:19 p.m. ET

President Trump is preparing to announce changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba, possibly tightening restrictions on travel and trade that were loosened under former President Barack Obama.

Trump is expected to announce the changes in Miami on Friday.

The move was confirmed by a congressional source with direct knowledge of the situation.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has been leading the push for a more restrictive policy, along with his fellow Cuban-American, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.

The changes could make it more difficult for Americans to visit the island and for U.S. companies to do business there. The Obama administration ended decades of economic and diplomatic isolation of Cuba, in hopes that renewed engagement would lead to reforms in the communist country.

The White House declined to discuss the pending changes.

"When we have an announcement on the president's schedule, we'll let you know," said spokesman Sean Spicer. "But just stay tuned."

Advocates for greater engagement with Cuba warn the administration's changes could be costly.

"This is the opposite of 'America First.' This is America last," said James Williams, who leads the nonpartisan lobbying group Engage Cuba.

He warns that reduced travel and trade with Cuba could cost thousands of American jobs.

Travel to the island is already limited to visitors in 12 authorized categories, but there is little enforcement. And with renewed commercial air service, visits to Cuba have soared.

The administration is considering stepped up policing to discourage pleasure travel and limiting visitors to one trip per year.

Williams says that would be especially hard on Cuban-Americans with relatives on the island.

"Imagine, your mother is sick in Cuba," Williams said. "You might have to decide between going to see her in the hospital bed before she dies or going to the funeral. And that is just tragic."

Polls suggest a majority of Americans support greater engagement with Cuba. Last month, 55 senators sponsored legislation that would further relax travel restrictions.

The opening has also led to modest changes in Cuba, with increased revenue for small-business owners and Internet hot spots in Havana.

"I think Cubans in Cuba will be terribly disheartened" by the renewed restrictions, said Carlos Gutierrez, who served as commerce secretary under former President George W. Bush. "This decision will not play well anywhere, except for in those very cloistered spots in South Florida where Sen. Rubio and Mario Diaz-Balart have constituents."

Shortly before Trump's inauguration, Rubio said in a statement that he was heartened the new administration would reverse "the failed Cuba policy of the last two years."

When the Obama administration policy was first rolled out in late 2014, Rubio blasted the move.

"Just as when President Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations with Cuba, the Castro family still controls the country, the economy and all levers of power. This administration's attempts to loosen restrictions on travel in recent years have only served to benefit the regime," he said in a statement. "But most importantly, the regime's brutal treatment of the Cuban people has continued unabated. Dissidents are harassed, imprisoned and even killed."

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President Trump this week may address another of the issues on which he promised big change. As a candidate, Trump denounced President Obama's move to restore relations with Cuba. Now, he is preparing to visit Miami and discuss his own policy. NPR's Scott Horsley is covering this story. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's the president going to do?

HORSLEY: Well, the White House has been officially mum so far, so plans could certainly change between now and Friday. But a congressional source close to the deliberation says Trump is expected to backtrack from the Obama-era push towards closer ties with Cuba. That's like...

INSKEEP: Backtrack - that doesn't mean break off relations with Cuba, does it?

HORSLEY: Probably won't go that far, but we are likely to see some new limits on travel and trade with Cuba. James Williams leads an advocacy group called Engage Cuba that has been working to foster closer ties. And he warns one change being contemplated would limit Americans to one trip to Cuba per year and that includes Cuban-Americans.


JAMES WILLIAMS: So imagine your mother is sick in Cuba, your grandmother is sick. You might have to decide between going to see her in the hospital bed before she dies or going to the funeral. I mean, that is just tragic, you know, and it's not what we should be about.

And I hope that gets changed before Friday because there is still time for this to be influenced. Until the president says these words and writes the recommendations, things could change. But as of right now, we're in a very, very scary place.

INSKEEP: Well, how would the administration go about restricting travel, Scott?

HORSLEY: Well, right now, travel is restricted to just 12 permitted categories, but it's sort of on the honor system. There's very little enforcement of that. There are few questions asked. That could change. There could be more policing to make sure visitors actually fit in one of those permitted categories. There's also talk of clamping down on Americans doing business with any entity that's connected to the Cuban military, and that could have a chilling effect on economic ties.

INSKEEP: What are the politics of all this?

HORSLEY: Polling suggests that most Americans actually support the existing policy of greater openness to Cuba, and that includes a majority of Republicans. Just last month, we saw 55 senators sponsoring a bill that would go even further in relaxing the travel restrictions. But there are a handful of Cuban-American lawmakers who want to see a renewed crackdown. Williams says two who are leading this effort are Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Miami Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart.


WILLIAMS: Unfortunately, this is Washington backroom politics at its very worst. The real reason this is happening is a sort of backroom deal between Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart and Senator Rubio with President Trump while all the majority of the pro-engagement members of Congress have been left on the sidelines.

HORSLEY: Now, Diaz-Balart, I should say, provided one of the crucial votes in the House for the GOP health care bill. And the congressman said in a statement, I will never waste an opportunity to fight for the interests of our community and our country.

Now, both the congressman and Senator Rubio reflect a sort of classic conservative attitude of the Cuban exile community in South Florida. But even there, that's a shrinking attitude. There was a survey last year by Florida International University which found even among Cuban-Americans in South Florida, most want to lift the decades-old embargo.

INSKEEP: But I want to be clear on this, Scott. Your reporting shows an inclination by the White House not to completely roll back Obama's policies that Trump criticized very harshly but to tweak them.

HORSLEY: That's right. Most people don't think the president will go so far as to shutter the U.S. embassy in Havana or completely break off diplomatic ties. And there is a certain business momentum that is going to continue to push for greater openness.

You know, last year when President Obama traveled to Cuba, Carlos Gutierrez, who was the former commerce secretary under George W. Bush, went along with him. And he said at the time, every new visitor, every new business deal made it that much more difficult to reverse Obama's policies. I spoke to Gutierrez yesterday, and he said there are also strategic reasons for Trump not to go too far.


CARLOS GUTIERREZ: The president is very concerned with immigration. He's very concerned with drugs, with crime. Having Cuba on our side is a very good thing for each of those three. Having them not on our side is not a good thing.

INSKEEP: Scott, regardless of the details of the policy, do you feel you understand the White House's theory of the case here? How do they see Cuba? How do they think it is wise to approach Cuba broadly?

HORSLEY: Well, certainly, the folks like Senator Rubio and Congressman Diaz-Balart feel that isolating Cuba is the best way to foster political and economic change on the island. The Obama administration took the opposite attitude. They felt like greater engagement, greater connection with Cuba was the best way to foster change.

They argued that we isolated Cuba - the United States - for more than half a century and that didn't bring about the change they want. They can see that the last two years haven't brought as much change as perhaps they would like to see, but they say they ought to give the policy of renewed openness more time.

INSKEEP: And Trump you still don't know which way he's going to go. OK.

HORSLEY: (Laughter) We'll find out Friday.

INSKEEP: All right, Scott, thanks very much.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Scott Horsley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.