President Donald Trump's new Cuba policy is a nod to hard-line exiles in South Florida that only hurts Americans and Cubans while diminishing Washington's ability to foster democratic and economic reforms on the island. The American public, businesses and state and local governments should work around the president's hurdles and continue to promote openness and relationships that benefit the people of both countries.
Trump announced the new rules Friday in Miami, ground zero for the dysfunctional U.S.-Cuba relationship for the past half-century. His plan calls for the United States to tighten regulations on Americans traveling to Cuba and beef up enforcement of the existing U.S. trade embargo. The aim is to ensure that American travel is legal and that Cuba's military — which has vast holdings in the island's tourism sector — does not profit from American trade.
In general, there is less to Trump's policy than his bluster suggests. He did not reverse Obama's agreement with Cuba to restore diplomatic relations, including the reopening of embassies and the exchange of ambassadors. He did not tighten the Obama-era rules loosening allowances for Cuban-Americans to visit the island and to remit more money back home. Obama's elimination of the "wet foot/dry foot" policy, which gave Cuban immigrants who reached the U.S. mainland special status, remains in effect. And the new restrictions on American travel and trade with Cuban institutions don't apply to commercial air and cruise operators, airports and seaports, reflecting how Trump manages to swallow his concerns about human rights under the Castro regime when big business stands to lose.
Still, the new rules will crimp this budding relationship. Trump reversed an Obama policy that allowed Americans traveling on educational or cultural grounds to make their own arrangements without special permission from the U.S. government. These so-called "people-to-people" trips will have to be arranged by a licensed tour group. That means more red tape and costs for Americans to visit. The Treasury Department, which oversees compliance with the embargo, was directed to enforce the travel restrictions more forcefully, including using routine audits more frequently. Americans also are prohibited from dealing with companies controlled by Cuba's military, intelligence or security services, which have management links to hotels, restaurants and shops.
It is legitimate for America to use trade and diplomatic ties as leverage to encourage Cuba's communist government to open up its society and economy and improve its human rights record. But by making it harder and more expensive for Americans to travel there, Trump is diminishing America's ability to stand as a model for ordinary Cubans. On the pretense of promoting liberty in Cuba, the administration is restricting Americans' right to travel. This won't sell in Havana and it looks petty on the global stage.
This is a political stunt that could lead Cuba to walk away from other aspects of the Obama deal, from working together on natural disasters to cracking down on drug trafficking. And the negative impact could be felt particularly in the Tampa area, with its large Cuban-American population. Some 80,000 passengers flew from Tampa to Cuba last year; in the first five months of this year, 64,000 from here have made the trip, most by commercial flights. Two cruise ships leaving from Tampa offer stops in Havana. It is time to move ahead, not turn back the clock — certainly not for a watered-down policy wholly lacking in principle.