Trump to Reveal Cuba Policy in Miami Next Friday

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By Patricia Mazzei, pmazzei@miamiherald.com

President Donald Trump will travel to Miami next Friday to announce his administration’s changes to U.S.-Cuba policy, a source with knowledge of the president’s plans told the Miami Herald.

The location for the event is still in the works. But scheduling the trip indicates the Cuba policy, which has been undergoing drafts for several weeks, will be imminently finalized. And deciding to unveil the policy in Miami suggests it will please the hardline Cuban exiles whose support Trump considered significant to winning Florida, and the presidency.

Vice President Mike Pence is also expected to attend. He will already be in town for a Central America conference to be held next Thursday and Friday at Florida International University and U.S. Southern Command. Three Cabinet secretaries — Rex Tillerson of State, John Kelly of Homeland Security and Steven Mnuchin of Treasury — will take part in the conference, but Tillerson plans to depart Thursday, and it’s not clear if Kelly and Mnuchin will take part in the Cuba policy event.

Several local venues have symbolism for Cuban Americans, including the Bay of Pigs Museum in Little Havana and the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami.

A mid-June Trump visit has been rumored since Memorial Day, when word of the Cuba policy rewrite began trickling from alarmed backers of former President Barack Obama’s reengagement approach toward the communist island. Trump is preparing to tighten at least some of Obama’s changes, including restricting business with the Cuban military and U.S. travel that resembles tourism.

Those type of revisions have been endorsed by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the only two local GOP members of Congress who backed Trump and as a result have pressured his administration on the issue. Rubio in particular has been working closely with the White House and National Security Council on the upcoming changes.

“I am absolutely confident that the president is going to deliver on his word, on his commitments,” Diaz-Balart told the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald in a recent interview. “He was very clear that he thought that President Obama in essence got nothing in exchange for the concessions he gave to the Castro regime.”

Members of Congress who favor closer U.S.-Cuba ties have urged Trump to maintain Obama’s approach. On Thursday, seven Republican lawmakers from outside Florida whose districts see agricultural, industrial or commercial opportunities in Cuba wrote Trump to argue that keeping a foothold Cuba is important for U.S. national security. Three GOP senators with similar views made a similar plea to Tillerson and National Security Adviser Henry McMaster.

Two weeks before Election Day, Trump received an endorsement from the Brigade 2506 veterans at the Bay of Pigs Museum, a show of support that came after Trump had pledged at a local rally to “reverse” Obama’s Cuba policy. As president, Trump has privately brought up the Bay of Pigs Museum event to Florida Republicans as a key moment for his campaign, though his critics have disputed that the Cuban-American vote won Trump the presidency.

Your Editor Takes Sides: Contact and dialogue fosters understanding 

Want to Visit Cuba? Trump May Make it Harder

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By Alan Gomez , USA TODAY

President Trump likely will fulfill a campaign promise this month by curbing some of the ties with Cuba that former president Barack Obama adopted when he made his historic overture to the communist island.

Trump threatened during campaign stops in the Cuban-American enclave of Miami to cut ties with Cuba. After winning the election, he tweeted that he might “terminate” Obama’s renewal of diplomatic relations with Cuba, which ended more than 50 years of estrangement that began during the Cold War.

Cuban experts say Trump has backed off that stance, noting he has been preoccupied with other issues, plus a broad collection of American businesses have benefited from the opening.

“All the initial signs were that he was going to reverse everything,” said Frank Mora, a former Defense Department official under Obama and now director of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami. “But (Trump) doesn’t really care about Cuba. There’s going to be much more symbolism in the kinds of changes they will announce than anything substantive.”

A report released last week by Engage Cuba, a Washington-based group, estimated that American companies would lose $6.6 billion and more than 12,000 U.S. jobs over Trump’s first term if he reversed course.

Opponents of Obama’s policy say it has done nothing to change Cuba’s communist system and repression. The Havana-based Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation said the government has detained more than 400 political prisoners each month this year, a drop from 2016 but a constant reminder of Cubans’ limited rights.

Trump is expected to announce the changes some time in June, possibly during a visit to Miami. Here are some key aspects of Obama’s opening with Cuba that could be at risk:

EMBASSIES

Even hard-line opponents of renewed ties don’t expect Trump to shut down diplomatic relations and close the recently reopened embassies in Washington and Havana.

The opening has allowed greater dialogue between the two governments, which have held dozens of high-level meetings that led to limited postal service, more intelligence sharing and government cooperation on drug interdiction, emergency response and environmental challenges.

Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba and one of the loudest critics of Obama’s opening, acknowledged he doesn’t want to see the embassies shuttered again. “You can never go back,” he said.

FLIGHTS AND CRUISES

One of the most tangible changes under Obama was re-establishing direct commercial flights between the Cold War foes. Now, Americans traveling to Cuba under one of 12 categories approved by the U.S. government can hop online and book a flight.

The demand has not been as high as expected, prompting several airlines to scale back their flights and three — Spirit Airlines, Frontier and Silver Airways — to cancel all their Cuba flights. Pedro Freyre, an attorney with the Akerman law firm who brokered multiple deals between U.S. companies and Cuba, said Trump is unlikely to further punish U.S.-based airlines by canceling their limited runs.

“The invisible hand of the market is already working its magic,” Freyre said.

Cruise operators continue pushing ahead. Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruises have announced more than 200 sailings to the island in the next three years, according to the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. Few expect those to be limited, since passengers mostly spend their nights on the American cruise ships and aren’t handing money to Cuban-owned hotels.

HOTELS

One likely area for change is the ability of U.S.-owned companies to manage hotel properties in Cuba.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts signed a deal with the Cuban government to operate — but not own — three landmark hotels in Havana. That arrangement angered Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., and other Cuban-Americans because the deal made Starwood partners with the Cuban military, the largest hotel operator on the island.

“If the Americans want to deal with hotels in Cuba, the administration ought to find a way in which those hotels function as foreign hotels, as they do in other countries,” Calzon said. “The idea is not to finance the Cuban military.”

Airbnb could survive. The San Francisco-based company was one of the first to take advantage of the diplomatic opening with Cuba and now helps more than 8,000 Cubans rent their homes to tourists. Those visits mostly benefit Cuban homeowners, meaning Trump could allow that relationship to continue.

CIGARS AND RUM

One of the most popular changes under Obama was the free flow of Cuba’s legendary rum and cigars.

His administration allowed Americans to return from Cuba with up to $100 worth of the items. That was later expanded so people traveling anywhere in the world can come back to the U.S. with as many bottles and boxes they wanted, as long as the items were for personal use.

Those changes are in jeopardy because the island’s rum and cigar companies are state owned, meaning most profits go to the Cuban government. Even supporters of more trade and travel with Cuba believe allowing rum and cigars will be shut down.

“That one is likely to be reversed,” Freyre said. “If I were to be in favor of any changes, which I’m not, I would be in favor of that one. It’s just so frivolous.”

VISAS

Because of the economic embargo the U.S. maintains on Cuba, tourism remains off limits. Securing a visa was one of the hardest aspects of traveling to Cuba before Obama renewed diplomatic ties, because Americans had to get approval through the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control, which was often handled by travel agencies. Travelers also had to show their visit complied with one of 12 allowable reasons, such as religious, educational or humanitarian trips.

The Obama administration made that process far simpler, allowing travelers to purchase their visas at airline counters and simply attest that they were going to Cuba for legal reasons. Calzon believes too many people take advantage of that process and visit Cuba simply as tourists.

HELP TO CUBANS

Obama allowed Cuban-Americans to send unlimited amounts of money to relatives on the island. Trump could reimpose limits on those money transfers because the Cuban government takes a cut of each money transfer as a steady stream of income.

It’s unclear whether Trump will limit those remittances, but Freyre said that decision should not be political, but a humanitarian one.

“Even staunch defenders of the embargo say, ‘Don’t mess with the families,'” Freyre said. “If you now come out and say you can no longer send money to your grandmother, that’s just mean-spirited.”

Your Editor Suggests:  Let the Cubans in Cuba protest, It´s their right and obligation. That was Obama’s message. 

Trump Faces a Tough Task in Unwinding Obama’s Cuba Policy

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By Associated Press

President Obama’s 2014 easing of U.S. policy toward 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 of dollars 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. 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 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, according to a Trump administration official and a person involved in the ongoing policy review.

“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, including religious and educational activities meant to bring the traveler into contact with Cuban people.

When Obama took office, “people-to-people” travelers could see the country only as part of organized tours — a measure meant to guarantee that Americans experienced 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.

But individual travel has also served as rocket fuel for Cuba’s burgeoning private sector. Tens of thousands of Americans are booking direct flights on U.S. airlines to Havana, reserving private lodging through Airbnb and spending thousands of dollars on private guides, taxis and restaurants.

A former industrial engineer, 31-year-old Adyarin Ruiz runs a four-bedroom bed-and-breakfast in a restored section of Old Havana that’s seeing an increasing number of Americans willing to pay up to $100 a night in a country where state salaries average $25 a month.

“Over the last two years, since relations with the U.S. were restored, I’ve seen the growth in American tourism, and even more so since the direct flights started,” Ruiz said. “The Americans who’ve come here are VIPS. You can see that they have money and they appreciate and demand quality, and demand that the house looks really pretty.”

There are also now U.S. jobs dependent on travel to Cuba. The American pro-detente group Engage Cuba released a study Thursday asserting that a complete rollback of Obama’s Cuba policy would cost airlines and cruise lines $3.5 billion over the next four years and lead to the loss of 10,154 travel jobs.

Administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss ongoing policy talks say domestic political concerns are the main force driving any rollback on Cuba.

During the transition, Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson privately expressed support for Obama’s Cuba policy, U.S. officials from the former and current administrations told the Associated Press.

The main people still seeking a reversal in the opening are Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, both Cuban Americans and Republicans from Florida. The Trump government wants to maintain good relations with Rubio, who sits on the Senate committee investigating Trump’s relations with Russia, and Diaz-Balart, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Some top Trump advisors also believe that a 2020 reelection victory will rest on keeping the loyalty of Cuban Americans in Florida, whom they see as essential to winning the crucial swing state.

Many object to the Cuban government seeing any benefit from relations with the U.S., and are opposed to thousands of American travelers staying in hotels run by GAESA, an increasingly powerful business conglomerate with deep military ties. Cuban Americans have been particularly offended by Obama allowing U.S. companies to deal directly with military-linked companies, most prominently in an agreement for Stamford, Conn.-based Starwood to manage at least two Havana hotels. Anti-Castro forces have also been demanding action on human rights: Arrests and short-term detentions of protesters climbed from 8,899 in 2014 to 9,940 last year.

Cuban officials say many of those arrests are deliberately provoked by dissidents who are funded and backed by anti-Castro groups with the deliberate objective of driving up detention statistics.

But the officials say there’s another reason to tighten America’s Cuba policy: pressuring Venezuela. The Trump administration has been looking for ways to force Venezuela to address the near-daily protests and violence trying to shake President Nicolas Maduro‘s iron grip on power. Cuba is Maduro’s close ally and supporter, and measures against the Cuban military would send at least the appearance that the U.S. is taking action.

Meanwhile, Cuba is preparing for its own transition. Castro is planning to leave Cuba’s presidency in February and is expected to hand the role to a 57-year-old vice president who has said little about his vision for the country.

Rubio’s office described the senator’s goals as laying the groundwork for a new generation of Cuban leaders to empower ordinary citizens of the island.

“I am confident the president will keep his commitment on Cuba policy by making changes that are targeted and strategic and which advance the Cuban people’s aspirations for economic and political liberty,” Rubio said in a statement released by his office Thursday.

This AP report was published in The Los Angeles Times om June 2

More Than 50 Senators Support Eliminating Restrictions on Travel to Cuba

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By Nora Gámez Torres. The Miami Herald

As the Cuba policy review reaches its final stage, politicians, companies and organizations that support the policy of engagement are making an extra effort to send this message to Donald Trump: Mr. President, don’t eliminate opportunities to travel to the island.

Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) reintroduced a bill Thursday to eliminate all prohibitions on travel to Cuba. The bill, which had only eight cosponsors when first filed in 2015, now has the support of 55 senators from both parties.

“As the administration is finalizing its Cuba policy review, it is important to show that a bipartisan majority in the Senate supports not only not rolling back the measures that President Obama took to expand travel, but to go even further and remove all restrictions,” James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, told el Nuevo Herald. Engage Cuba is a coalition of companies and organizations that lobby to eliminate sanctions on Cuba.

The bill would remove all restrictions for U.S. citizens and residents on travel to Cuba, and will authorize associated banking transactions made by travelers. A similar proposal was presented in the House but with fewer sponsors.

Even if the bill is not discussed on the Senate floor, said Williams, it sends a strong message to the White House that there is support for the current policy of engagement.

In a separate move to push the agenda forward, another piece of legislation was introduced on Friday to lift the trade embargo. The Freedom to Export to Cuba Act of 2017 was introduced by Sens. Leahy, Flake, Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming).

“This bipartisan legislation would benefit the people of both our countries by boosting American exports and creating opportunity for the Cuban people,” said Klobuchar. “We need to turn the page on the failed policy of isolation and build on the progress we have made to open up engagement with Cuba by ending the embargo once and for all.”

On travel to the island, former President Barack Obama expanded to 12 the number of authorized categories under which travelers may visit Cuba. But the removal of all travel restrictions requires an act of Congress.

As a result of Obama’s measures, the number of Americans who traveled to the island soared. Cuban authorities reported 118-percent growth through March, compared to the same period last year. In 2016, more than 280,000 Americans traveled to the island.

But those who support the current policies fear that travel to Cuba may be in jeopardy. Although the review of the Cuba policy is being carried out by different federal agencies and coordinated by the National Security Council, Cuban-American lawmakers Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart — who favor the elimination of what they see as concessions to the Cuban government — are playing a significant role in the process.

“Recognizing the inherent right of Americans to travel to Cuba isn’t a concession to dictators, it is an expression of freedom. It is Americans who are penalized by our travel ban, not the Cuban government,” said Flake.

“Lifting the ban on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba can pave the way to meaningful change by increasing contact between Cubans and everyday Americans, and it is certain to have positive benefits for the island’s burgeoning entrepreneurial and private sector,” he added.

Recognizing the inherent right of Americans to travel to Cuba isn’t a concession to dictators, it is an expression of freedom.

In a statement in support of the bill, the Cuban Study Group, a Cuban-American nonprofit organization that backed Obama’s changes, stressed that the elimination of the restrictions would have a “substantial” effect on the lives of Cubans, especially those who have joined the private sector.

“Instead of being forced to use the government as an intermediary, hundreds of thousands of Cubans who work in independent restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and a wide range of other service professions would have direct access to U.S. currency,” the organization said.

Some 40 companies and associations organizing trips to Cuba also sent a letter to Trump asking him to prioritize economic “growth and job creation” in the policy review.

The letter signers, including former charter flight companies as well as the American Society of Travel Agents, the National Tour Association and the United States Tour Operators Association, say the increase in U.S. visitors to Cuba has allowed them to “hire more American employees,” in a nod to Trump’s America First theme.

“U.S. travelers are the best representatives of American beliefs, ideas and values,” said Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, who coordinated the letter. “The Trump administration should put U.S. companies and travelers in a position to compete with Chinese, Russian and Venezuelan influence on the island.”

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