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Cuba under ‘maximum pressure’ by Trump in 2020

“Stay tuned, there will be more actions aimed at restricting their sources of income,” said Michael Kozak, acting assistant secretary of state for Latin America.
The U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba. [Associated Press]
The U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba. [Associated Press]
Published Dec. 31, 2019
Updated Dec. 31, 2019

The United States will maintain its “maximum pressure” policy on Cuba in 2020 and is finalizing new measures to further cut off the revenue that flows into the Cuban government’s coffers, a senior U.S. official told the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

“Stay tuned, there will be more actions aimed at restricting their sources of income,” said Michael Kozak, acting assistant secretary of state for Latin America. “We’re looking for ways to restrict, restrict, restrict their freedom of action until they change their ways, which is a hard thing to foresee given their history, 61 years or nothing but repression and decline.”

The U.S. launched a “maximum pressure” campaign this year against the government of Havana for its support of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and human rights violations of Cubans on the island.

President Donald Trump authorized legal claims under Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, banned cruising trips to the island, and limited remittances. Cuban leader Raúl Castro and his children were sanctioned, along with other officials and companies, especially those involved in shipments of Venezuelan oil that keep the island afloat.

Kozak said the U.S. would push to squeeze further activities that bring revenue to the government, including the medical services export program that brought more than $6 billion to the Cuban government in 2018.

“In terms of the airlines, we have significantly restricted the schedule of the flights there and, again, we continue to look at other ways to tighten up the sources of revenue,” the official added.

Trump critics have questioned the effectiveness of the current policy toward Cuba. Although the Cuban government has acknowledged that U.S. sanctions are hitting the economy hard, it has not shown signs of abandoning Maduro. Instead, Cuban officials have suggested that the Trump administration intends to damage diplomatic relations and close the two countries’ embassies, reopened under Barack Obama in 2015.

Granma, Cuba’s Communist Party newspaper, accused the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Havana, Mara Tekach, of intervening in the internal affairs of the country. Cuba’s appointed-president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, said in a recent speech that his government would respond to Washington’s alleged meddling.

Kozak, a career diplomat who was in charge of the Interests Section in Havana between 1996-99, declined to comment on the possibility of a breakdown in diplomatic relations and defended Tekach’s work “in defense of human rights and democracy” in Cuba.

“U-S. Cuba relations had not been good since this regime took power 61 years ago,” he said. “They are back again as they were, in the early days of the revolution, trying to prop up similar dictatorships around the world, especially in Venezuela, where you see Maduro guarded by Cuban bodyguards because he cannot trust his own people, and military Intelligence penetrated by hundreds and hundreds of Cuban officers.”

“Talking about intervening in somebody else’s internal affairs, I think that’s a pretty good example of it,” he added.

No changes in immigration policies for Cubans

The embassy in Havana is currently operating with a minimum staff after the closing of its consular office in September 2017 in response to health incidents that affected 26 U.S. officials and their families and whose cause is still unknown, Kozak said.

The suspension of the issuance of visas in Havana and the restrictive immigration policies of the Trump administration have made it much more difficult for Cubans to travel or obtain asylum in the United States. That situation is likely to continue next year.

Kozak declined to comment on a bill introduced by Florida Democratic representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell to reopen the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program that has been suspended for more than two years, leaving more than 20,000 Cubans in limbo. The bill proposes to conduct visa interviews via teleconference.

“Cubans are still eligible to come to the United States under the same laws that apply to every other country in the world,” Kozak said. “Yes, it’s more difficult now because we’ve had to reduce our consular staff so radically.”

Although Trump’s foreign policy towards Latin America has denounced dictatorships in the region, those fleeing from those governments find significant obstacles in obtaining asylum in the U.S.

Cuban asylum seekers, like citizens of any other country, must now wait in Mexico to resolve their cases. Many who applied before the new policy came into force in May have been waiting for months in detention centers across the country. And the administration is finalizing agreements with several Central American countries for them to take the burden of immigrants, including Cubans, who cross their territories in their route to the Mexican border.

“Our asylum system has gotten completely overwhelmed, so we’ve taken these steps,” Kozak said. “It doesn’t mean people will get sent back to the place they’re going to be persecuted. They have to wait somewhere else while they get processed. In that respect, Cubans are being treated the same as [people from] all other countries.”

Currently, Cubans must travel to a third country to obtain U.S. visas, after the withdrawal of most diplomatic personnel in Havana due to several cases of U.S. officials affected with brain injuries and other symptoms. The incidents caused a blow to U.S.-Cuba relations, and several U.S. government officials described them as “attacks” targeting their personnel in Havana.

But Kozak refused to use that term to refer to what happened in Havana.

“People suffered physical damage to their bodies. We don’t know how that was done, or by whom, so we’re not going to speculate,” the diplomat said. “What we know is that they were injured, and we haven’t gotten cooperation from the Cuban side.”

-- By Nora Gámez Torres