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Military's control of tourism may influence Trump policy on Cuba travel

Guests board the Empress of the Seas in April for the first voyage stopping in Cuba for Royal Caribbean out of Port Tampa Bay. Those who favor engagement with the Communist nation say it is helping grow private industry there. [LUIS SANTANA   |   Times]

Guests board the Empress of the Seas in April for the first voyage stopping in Cuba for Royal Caribbean out of Port Tampa Bay. Those who favor engagement with the Communist nation say it is helping grow private industry there. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published Jun. 15, 2017

TAMPA — If President Donald Trump takes his cue from opponents of new and open relations with Cuba, he will decry how an influx of U.S. visitors there is filling the coffers of the Communist nation's military.

Trump is expected to address tourism when he visits Miami on Friday for a long-awaited announcement of his administration's Cuba policy.

Trump the candidate criticized normalization of relations with Cuba under President Barack Obama as a bad deal for the United States. And the Cuban military does indeed manage the bulk of the island's growing tourism industry — 60 to 70 percent of it, by most accounts.

But some Cuba analysts say 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. What's more, they say, it's Cuba's police — not military — who carry out the political repression that angers U.S. interests on both sides of normalization debate.

"They are entitled to a military and are not a threat to us," said Tom Popper, president of New York-based travel company Insight Cuba. "Regardless, the correlation that every dollar goes to buy bullets is wrong."

That view is supported by Arturo Lopez-Levy, a policy analyst for Cuba from 1992 to 1994 and now a lecturer at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

"In the Cuban government's evaluation about the current international situation, an American military invasion is not the most probable scenario," Lopez-Levy said. "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."

As for the Cuban enforcers arresting protestors that hardliners point to when decrying the human rights issues on the island, they are law enforcement and fall under the budget of the Ministry of the Interior, not linked to tourism

Still, those counseling Trump — many of them from Florida — view the Cuban military as the bogeyman.

"It is not in the national interest of the United States for us to be doing business with the Cuban military," Florida Sen. Marco Rubio told El Nuevo Herald in April.

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The flow of tourist money to the military may be a target for Trump under any new Cuba policy, said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

The best way to bring about regime change, many opponents of normalization say, is the kind of financial sanctions that have characterized U.S. relations with Cuba since the nation embraced Communism in the early 1960s following the Castro revolution.

"Fewer people going means less money to the Cuban government to sustain itself," Kavulich said. "That is their goal."

But opening Cuba to U.S. travelers, some analysts say, is also bringing about changes that even critics of the military can embrace by helping grow private industry in the island nation.

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

For example, more than three out of four Americans who have traveled to Cuba stayed in a private bed and breakfast for some or all their visit and 99 percent dined at a privately owned restaurant, according to a survey by Cuba Educational Travel.

"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, Cuban born 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," Amore 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 there, 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.

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

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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 sizeable portion of the population in a nation requiring all men to enlist.

Not everyone sees the Cuban military as a social service organization, though, even today. Some critics of the socialist government in Venezuela, allied with Cuba, say the institution helps squash protest there.

"In Venezuela, everything is controlled by the Cuban military," said Norma Reno of Tampa, born in Venezuela and a supporter of dissidents in her home country.

In a 2014 report, Ted Piccone of the Brookings Institution said sources have said there could be thousands of intelligence and military advisors from Cuba operating in Venezuela.

Still, he told the Tampa Bay Times, these contentions are difficult to quantify.

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.