Pro-engagement groups blast Trump’s Cuba policies

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President Donald Trump signs a Cuba policy executive order, Friday, June 16, 2017, in Miami. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Advocacy organizations, lobbying groups, and business leaders that support increased ties to Cuba criticized President Donald Trump for partially reversing the Obama administration’s Cuba opening.

During a Friday speech in Miami, the president signed a policy directive to increase restrictions on traveling to Cuba and doing businesses with companies linked to the military.

“The previous administration’s easing of restrictions on travel and trade does not help the Cuban people. They only enrich the Cuban regime,” Trump said.

The ban on doing business transactions with companies tied to the Cuban military targets GAESA, a military-run conglomerate whose holdings include hotels, retail chains, banks and remittance services, tourist bus fleets, construction companies, and more.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) wrote Friday that the new travel regulations will end individual people-to-people trips, which gave visitors freedom to arrange their own itineraries. In a move to keep visitors away from tourist traps and all-inclusive resorts, the administration will only allow group “people-to-people” trips. Those trips typically include scheduled activities and company guides; which critics of the new policy say benefit state-run businesses that end up receiving those visitors.

Even though Trump said he is “canceling the last administration’s one sided deal with Cuba,” the directive leaves most of Obama’s policies intact. Commercial airlines and cruises will still be allowed to serve Cuba and there are no changes to remittances policies. Embassies in Havana and Washington will remain open. The “wet foot, dry foot” policy that gave Cubans who reached U.S. soil a pathway to citizenship was not reinstated. And there are no changes to rules allowing travelers to bring back Cuban rum and cigars.

Some political advocacy groups that support expanded ties to Cuba slammed Trump’s revised travel policies, but did not specifically mention restrictions on doing business with military-owned companies.

“The confusion that will surround this policy will undoubtedly stifle U.S. demand to travel to the island,” wrote James Williams, president of the anti-embargo Engage Cuba lobby group. “Additionally, by requiring Americans to travel in tour groups, the Administration is not only making it more expensive for everyday Americans to travel to island, but pushing them away from staying in private homes – which are unable to accommodate large tour groups – and into state run hotels.”

“[It’s] bad for Americans, for whom free travel should be a right, and bad for Cubans on the island, who overwhelmingly support closer ties with the U.S. and many of whom are already seeing the benefits of engagement,” wrote Emily Mendrala, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

Other groups that favor Obama’s approach also criticized the new policy, but acknowledged the Trump administration’s decision to continue supporting the country’s nascent private sector and maintaining diplomatic ties.

“The limited scope of the review’s conclusions represents an admission of defeat by previously intransigent hardliners,” wrote the Cuba Study Group think tank. “In statements defending the new policy, they adopted pro-normalization positions they once scorned: the importance of continued diplomatic engagement and of supporting Cuba’s private sector.”

Businesses leaders interested in expanding ties to the island, for their part, said they were discouraged by Friday’s decision but will continue looking at opportunities on the island.

“Unfortunately, today’s moves actually limit the possibility for positive change on the island and risk ceding growth opportunities to other countries that, frankly, may not share America’s interest in a free and democratic Cuba that respects human rights,” wrote Myron Brilliant, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive vice president and head of international affairs. “We remain committed to working with all relevant parties to remove the antiquated policies that hinder the empowerment of the American and Cuban people.”

“While today’s announcement will add some hurdles for Americans interested in trade and travel to Cuba, manufacturers appreciate the President’s acknowledgment that our commercial and diplomatic engagement can support the ambitions of the Cuban people,” wrote Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers. “We look forward to expanding investment and opportunity in Cuba.”

The White House says Friday’s directive instructs the Treasury and Commerce departments to start writing the new regulations within 30 days. The tightened restrictions will only go into effect once the regulations are finalized, which “could take several months.”

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