‘Now We Hold the Cards’

During the heated phase of the 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump recruited the hard-liners among Cuban expats. On Friday, the 71-year-old returned to Little Havana in Miami as the U.S. president to keep his promise: a tightening of the U.S.-Cuba policy.

In 2014, his predecessor Barack Obama relaxed the embargo against Cuba, which had existed since the beginning of the Cold War. For the first time in decades, American companies were able to enter trade relations and U.S. citizens were able to travel to the island. In 2016 alone, the communist island state welcomed 500,000 Americans.

Trump called this a “terrible and misguided deal with the Castro regime” in a speech in front of veterans of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Republican politicians and former prisoners of the Cuban regime. “Our policy will seek a much better deal for the Cuban people and for the United States of America.” Trump continued: “Now we hold the cards.”

The departure from the embargo, however, is not a complete about-face: The embassies of both countries will remain open. As requested by Havana and initiated by Obama in January of this year, Cubans will no longer receive permanent residence status as soon as they set foot on U.S. soil. Air traffic between the two countries will also continue.

Individual Travel Prohibited Again

In addition, Cuban-Americans can continue to visit their families and transfer money to the island. The younger generation, in particular, has made extensive use of these opportunities. For Americans without family ties, however, independent travel will soon be prohibited again, and they will have to visit Cuba as part of a group. These licensed tours usually increase the price of a vacation.

Both U.S. companies and U.S. citizens will no longer be allowed to do business with companies owned by the Cuban military, which applies to 60 percent of the tourism industry. John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, asked a rhetorical question about the implementation: “Will the State Department print a map showing people where they can go and where not?”*

One of the biggest losers could be the Marriott Starwood hotel chain, which had already invested several million dollars on the island in order to get a head start. This also raises the question as to whether Trump can really avoid conflicts of interest: Marriott Starwood is a competitor of Trumps’ own hotel chain, which is currently run by his sons. But according to the White House, the Treasury and Commerce Departments are expected to craft regulations that spare “existing business that has occurred” as much as possible.

“We do not want U.S. dollars to prop up a military monopoly that exploits and abuses the citizens of Cuba,” is how the U.S. president justified the de facto return to a complete embargo, which was initiated 56 years ago.

Trump Calls for ‘Concrete Steps’

One of the main criticisms of Obama’s policy of opening relations was the lack of conditions with respect to human rights issues. Without getting specific, Trump announced he was ready for new talks should Cuba take “concrete steps” toward more freedom.

Members of the Democratic Party immediately pointed out that for governments of countries such as the Philippines or Egypt, not to mention longtime U.S. partners such as Saudi Arabia, such “concrete steps” in order to gain Trump’s favor were unnecessary.

While the previous administration wanted to drive change through the increasing opening for private-sector investment, the Trump administration aims to limit these investments to institutions that are opposed to the regime.

Redirection or End of the Flow of Money?

The coming months will show whether investment in non-government-owned businesses is possible or whether Trump’s new conditions will curtail the money that has been flowing to Cuban families and private tourism companies over the past two years. Much will depend on detailed proposals for the implementation of these regulations, which government departments are expected to craft in the coming weeks. A complete repeal of the embargo would have been unexpected under a Democratic U.S. president as well – the U.S. Congress would have the final say about this.

Trump’s decision is in line with the Republican consensus, but also comes on the heels of lobbying by the Cuban-American Republicans Marco Rubio and Mario Diaz-Balart, who have consistently raised their concerns with the U.S. president in the past few months. In the United States, but also in Florida itself, a clear majority is in favor of a policy of opening toward Cuba. Republican Cuban-Americans – the group of voters that contributed to Trump’s victory in the swing state of Florida – were the only group opposed to it. Therefore, the online magazine Politico described the announcement as a return “to GOP base.”

On Friday, criticism came [not only] from human rights groups such as Amnesty International, which saw a missed opportunity for a dialogue on human rights, but also from the American Chamber of Commerce.

Local critics fear that this voluntary isolation will lead to a decrease in the economic and political impact on the moribund Castro regime, which will probably determine a successor for President Raul Castro in the fall. They are concerned that the European Union, China and Russia will take advantage of Trump’s withdrawal.

*Editor’s note: The original quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.

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