Trump reasserts hardline US policy on Cuba, restricts business, travel

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Friday, June 16, 2017

US President Donald Trump unveiled a major reversal on US-Cuba policy Friday, putting a fresh chill on recently thawing economic ties with revised policies, including a ban on US firms conducting business with the Cuban military and the reinstatement of the individual travel ban.

Dispelling the softening of ties, Trump reasserted a hardline adversarial stance against Raúl Castro's government, demanding the release of political prisoners, legalization of political parties, adoption of rights of assembly and expression, as well as the holding of internationally observed democratic elections before lifting the embargo first imposed in October 1960.

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The president noted the US embassy in Cuba would remain open and ready to work with Cuba if it is willing to comply.

Perhaps the most significant plank in the revised position is that of the ban on business with the Cuban military, including the military-owned business conglomerate GAESA, which is estimated to control around 60% of the Cuban economy through monopolies.

"The new policy channels economic activities away from the Cuban military monopoly, Grupo de Administración Empresarial (GAESA), including most travel-related transactions, while allowing American individuals and entities to develop economic ties to the private, small business sector in Cuba," noted a statement from the US government.

"The basic policy driver was his concern that the previous policy was enriching the Cuban military and the intelligence services that contribute so much to oppression on the island. And that's the opposite of what he wanted to achieve, which is to have the benefits of any economic commerce with the United States go to the Cuban people," said a senior White House administration official in a press briefing.

The tone of Trump's announcement, made before a cheering audience in Miami rife with Cuban exiles and refugees, may be of greater political import than the substance of the revised policies, which left intact aspects of the travel and business provisions expanded under President Barack Obama.

The nationally televised event – reminiscent of a raucous campaign rally – reflected an obvious appeal to anti-Castro, pro-embargo Republicans in south Florida, which will be key to any hope for the embattled president's reelection.

Under the new restrictions, travel can still occur for a number of purposes, including for business and visiting family members, via formally organized group trips. Visitors returning to the US may, however, face enhanced screening to ensure they did not go to Cuba to support tourism.

The administration official also said the revised policy would not alter the so-called "wet-foot-dry-foot" policy regarding Cuban refugees arriving to US shores, but Trump did say in his speech the US would "keep in place the safeguards that protect Cubans risking their lives for unlawful travel to the United States ... we are going to be safeguarding those people."

The policy memorandum directs the Treasury and Commerce Departments to begin the process of issuing new regulations within 30 days.