Thursday, June 21, 2018
Politics

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

TAMPA — Travel to Cuba by commercial airlines and sea cruises will still be allowed under a new policy directive from President Donald Trump, but it will carry more restrictions than the more open engagement established under his predecessor.

When Trump visits Miami today to announce the new rules, he will decry how a new influx of U.S. visitors to the island under President Barack Obama has been filling the coffers of the Cuban military.

Trump aims to end that trend by forbidding any business deals with companies run by the military — a significant change for American visitors since the military, by most accounts, has an interest in 60 to 70 percent of the island nation's hotels, restaurants and retail shops.

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

Rubio said the policy will force the Cuban military to ease its grip on the Cuban economy.

But some advocates of engagement say this process already is under way with former President Barack Obama's move opening Cuba to U.S. travelers; they question whether Trump is hurting his own cause.

"It appears that the Trump changes would subject Americans to a lot more bureaucratic red tape and complicate travel to Cuba," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. "Doing so will harm the growing private sector on the island."

Frank Reno, president of Tampa-based Cuba Executive Travel, said, "There is a great liberalization of the economy occurring in Cuba. Small businesses are popping up everywhere and that has a lot to do with Americans."

One example: More than three out of four Americans who have traveled to Cuba stayed in a private bed and breakfast not controlled by the military for some or all of their visit and 99 percent dined at a privately owned restaurant, according to a survey by Cuba Educational Travel.

Airbnb says bed and breakfast owners in Cuba have earned $40 million through its services.

"The numbers are backing it up," said James Williams, president of the Washington, D.C., lobbying group Engage Cuba. "Americans disproportionately are supporting the private sector in Cuba more than any other country does."

What's more, Cuban-Americans are investing in the businesses of family and friends on the island knowing success is possible, said Vicente Amor, vice president of Tampa travel company ASC International USA.

"They played a role in opening new restaurants, buying old cars and renting them, and buying and renting homes," Amor said. "American tourists have had a big influence on the growth of the private sector."

• • •

It remains illegal under U.S. law to travel to Cuba for tourism. Travelers must check one of 12 boxes to justify a visit, including education and research.

But Obama established an honor system allowing self-certified educational tours, paving the way for a dramatic increase in travelers. From Tampa alone, 80,200 passengers flew to Cuba in 2016. And just five months into 2017, 63,635 already have made the trip from here, most via Southwest Airlines.

Two cruise ships leaving from Tampa offer itineraries that include Havana.

Among Trump's changes will be getting rid of that honor system — a process that he sees as ripe for abuse, a senior White House official told reporters Thursday.

Travelers now will have to visit Cuba as part of a certified tour operation such as ASC.

Still, even though they may help boost his business, Amor is unhappy with the restrictions.

"Treat Cuba like a sovereign country," he said. "Stop interfering in the Cuban internal system."

Tour groups are typically made up of more people than private bed and breakfasts or Cuban homes can accommodate, said Williams with Engage Cuba. Without access to the large hotels operated by the military, this could mean fewer Americans visiting Cuba and spending money with private businesses.

"The premise of the Obama policy was to get as much money and information to the Cuban private sector" as possible, Williams said. Candidate Trump, Williams noted, called Obama's policy a bad deal for the United States, but he added, "If possible, (Trump) made a 'bad deal' even worse."

Other Cuba observers welcome moves to force the military to divest itself of business interests.

One reason, said Evelio Otero, a retired Air Force colonel who served with commands in Tampa: the low pay of workers at military-operated hotels, even those run in partnership with a private company from off the island. They receive under $30 a month on average, he said.

Turn operations over to private sector, said Otero, who is of Cuban descent. "Now, that helps the people."

• • •

Some Cuba analysts say Trump's focus on the Cuban military is misguided and outdated — that the institution is more of a bureaucracy now than the fighting force of its Cold War peak when it enjoyed the sponsorship of the former Soviet Union.

When subsidies from the Soviet Union disappeared, Cuba formed the holding company GAESA to encourage other foreign investment and turned the company over to the military.

GAESA's portfolio includes subsidiaries such as Gaviota and Habaguanex, operators of hotels, restaurants and retail shops in tourist-heavy areas like Old Havana. The bulk of the profits go toward hospitals, pensions and other benefits for members of the military — a sizable portion of the population in a nation requiring all men to enlist.

"In the Cuban government's evaluation about the current international situation, an American military invasion is not the most probable scenario," Arturo Lopez-Levy, a policy analyst for Cuba from 1992 to 1994 and now a lecturer at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

"Most of the revenue from the economic sectors managed by the military or by former military acting as administration is destined to the social budget."

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 since Obama opened the island to travel.

But it's not the military doing the enforcing, Lopez-Levy said, it's law enforcement personnel who fall under the control of the Ministry of the Interior. This ministry, he said, has no connection to tourism.

The White House said federal agencies will have 90 days to write rules to implement Trump's policy once he signs it today.

Contact Paul Guzzo at

[email protected]

Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

 

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