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Trump faces tough task unwinding Obama Cuba policy

Published Jun. 3, 2017

HAVANA — President Barack Obama's 2014 opening with Cuba helped funnel American travel dollars into military-linked tourism conglomerates even as state security agents waged a fierce crackdown on dissent.

The rapprochement also poured hundreds of millions in U.S. spending into privately owned businesses on the island, supercharging the growth of an entrepreneurial middle-class independent of the communist state. It opened a new market for American corporations, with JetBlue and American Airlines operating from gleaming new Havana offices and tens of thousands of private bed-and-breakfasts listed on Airbnb.

Internet access became an affordable reality for hundreds of thousands of Cubans as President Raul Castro met a pledge to Obama and opened nearly 400 public Wi-Fi access points across the country. Meanwhile, longtime enemies separated by 90 miles of ocean struck agreements to cooperate on issues ranging from human trafficking to oil spills.

This is the complex scenario facing President Donald Trump as Cuban-American legislators and lobbyists pressure him to fulfill his campaign promise to undo Obama's deal with Cuba. The administration is close to announcing a new policy that would prohibit business with the Cuban military while maintaining the full diplomatic relations restored by Obama, a Trump administration official and a person involved in the ongoing policy review told the Associated Press.

"As the president has said, the current Cuba policy is a bad deal. It does not do enough to support human rights in Cuba," White House spokesman Michael Short said. "We anticipate an announcement in the coming weeks."

Still under debate: new restrictions on American leisure travel to Cuba, which has more than tripled since Obama's announcement, to nearly 300,000 last year.

Anti-Castro Cuban-Americans hate the idea of U.S. travelers enjoying mojitos in the police state that drove exiles from their homes and businesses. Tourism to Cuba remains barred by U.S. law, and American travelers to Cuba still must fall into one of 12 categories of justification for their travel, ranging from religious to educational activities meant to bring the traveler into contact with Cuban people.

When Obama took office, "people-to-people" travelers could only see the country as part of organized tours — a measure meant to guarantee that Americans experienced only educational activities such as visits to printing workshops or organic farmers' markets.

In reality, the tour requirement guaranteed that American travelers spent virtually every second of their time in Cuba under the direct control of the government, which requires U.S. tour operators to use government tour buses and guides and stay almost entirely in state-run hotels.

As his second term came to a close, Obama eliminated that requirement and opened the door for tens of thousands of travelers to book their own independent trips to Cuba.

Opponents of Obama's rollback say that has allowed many to engage in prohibited tourism, spending leisure days at the beach and all-inclusive resorts.