President Trump rationalized his recent mini-crackdown on Cuba as a way to pressure the Communist government to curb human-rights violations on the island.
The true level of Trump’s passion for the plight of civil dissidents — that is to say, zero — is evident from his fondness for Russia to his suck-up visit with Saudi royalty. The president has no moral qualms about dealing with oppressive, authoritarian regimes.
But undoing some of Barack Obama’sCuba initiatives gives Trump an opening to take another gratuitous dig at his predecessor while simultaneously placating hardliners in Miami’s Cuban-American community.
If aggressively implemented, the new policy will sharply reduce the flow of Americans visiting the country, a kick in the teeth to the struggling people of Cuba. It’s a strategy that will fail just as miserably as the 55-year-old trade embargo did to weaken the government, or bring meaningful change.
While the new rules won’t affect the U.S. airline flights or cruise-line trips to Havana, Americans wishing to travel there will face closer scrutiny by the Treasury Department. And good luck finding a place to stay.
Trump is prohibiting Americans from spending money at any hotels or businesses controlled by Grupo de Administracion Empresarial, the state entity under which the Cuban military runs much of the country’s economy.
The discredited notion that starving the regime will hasten democratic reforms was peddled to the president by Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, among others. It is a worn old path proven futile by the dismal results of the embargo, and opposed by many Cuban Americans today.
Tourism has been soaring in Cuba since 2014, when Obama made it easier to go. There’s no question that the government of Raul Castro has benefited from the rain of U.S. dollars, but so have thousands of Cubans who work in the hotels, shops, clubs, and restaurants.
In Havana not long ago, I met an engineer who now makes more money behind the wheel of a taxi. It’s a common story that underscores both the dead-end reality of the country’s socialist economy, and the opportunities that a larger American presence has brought.
Even under Obama, U.S. citizens technically weren’t allowed to travel to Cuba as ordinary tourists. There were (and are) 12 categories of authorized travel. The most commonly used is a broad provision for educational “people-to-people” visits.
The rules were relaxed by Obama to allow individuals and families to plan their own Cuba trips for “meaningful interaction” with Cuban citizens. It was basically a wink-wink green light for almost anybody who wanted to go — and tons of people did.
Now Trump has reinstated the past requirement that all “people-to-people” travel must be done only with licensed tour companies and guides. That’s a vacation-killer for many tourists.
And once the state-run hotels are officially off-limits — a list will be announced within months — U.S. charter companies will have a difficult time finding group accommodations. That, and Trump’s promised strict review of those seeking to visit the island under the 12 allowable categories, will cause a sharp drop in interest among American travelers, and major blow to Cuban tourism.
Rubio disingenuously says the Trump doctrine is to punish only the military regime. He told The Miami Herald: “If we’re going to have more economic engagement with Cuba, it will be with the Cuban people.”
The senator failed to reveal how the Cuban people can sidestep the reach of that bureaucracy and conduct business directly with Americans. In truth, it’s not possible. The nascent private sector can grow only if the regime allows it.
For many Cubans, the most desirable “economic engagement” is the kind that puts more cash in their pockets, which American tourism does.
Significantly, Trump left untouched major parts of Obama’s supposedly terrible Cuba policy. If you do get there, you can still bring home plenty of cigars and rum. Cuban Americans can still send unlimited money to friends and relatives. The U.S. Embassy in Havana remains open, and the “wet foot, dry foot” immigration exception for Cuban migrants has not been revived.
The speech that the president gave in Miami celebrating his new tough-guy approach was as politically driven as the policy itself. It has no chance of persuading Castro to do anything but dig in his heels, just as brother did for half a century.
And, like the hapless trade embargo, Trump’s crackdown on travel and commerce in Cuba will hurt only the people he is pretending to care about.
Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: The Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172; email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Column courtesy of the Associated Press.