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Trump talks tough on Cuba — but how much is really changing?

Trump’s announcement was a setback for politicians, including members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation, who would like to see a new approach to U.S.-Cuban relations.

President Trump announced the policy change before a crowd in Miami.
REUTERS/Joe Skipper

Surrounded by Cuban-American leaders, dissidents from the Castro regime, and a cheering crowd, President Donald Trump spoke, in no uncertain terms, about the drastic changes he will be making to the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba.

In a speech last Friday in Miami, Trump vowed to undo the diplomatic reopening that his predecessor, Barack Obama, initiated in 2014. He called that approach, which relaxed tough sanctions on the island nation, “terrible and misguided.” He blasted the communist regime, headed by Raul Castro, as oppressive and depraved.

“Now that I am your president,” Trump proclaimed, “America will expose the crimes of the Castro regime.”

It was a textbook example of the tough talk that is expected from this president. But his fiery rhetoric did not match the substance of the policy change he was selling: Trump’s administration will make it more difficult for Americans to travel to Cuba, and more difficult for U.S. companies to do business there, but certain major changes — like open embassies — will remain in place.

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To U.S.-Cuba observers, and some Minnesota lawmakers who have made increased engagement with the island nation a priority, the president’s announcement was symbolically significant as a step back to a half-century-old policy they believe is a failure.

For these critics, though, the silver lining is that Trump’s changes are narrow, and ambiguous, giving them room to keep advocating for a continued opening with Cuba, particularly in Congress, where lawmakers could fully reshape the U.S.-Cuba relationship — if they can muster the support.

A new relationship

Over the last two and a half years, the U.S.-Cuba relationship, which had been largely stagnant for the past half-century, has changed significantly.

Embassies in Washington and Havana, closed since 1961, reopened. Travel to the island nation, which was previously difficult without skirting the law, became much easier: Americans who did make the trip had long traveled with group tours, but the Obama administration relaxed restrictions, allowing individuals to go to Cuba as long as they did so under the guise of at least one of 12 broad categories for approved travel.

Policies implemented by the Obama administration also gave U.S. companies a role in facilitating that travel: The government permitted U.S. air carriers to begin direct commercial flights between airports in the U.S. and Cuba and permitted cruise ships carrying American tourists to sail between U.S. and Cuban ports.

U.S. business investment in Cuba became easier, as the administration lifted restrictions on doing business with a state-run Cuban corporation, closely linked to the country’s military, that holds tremendous sway in operating Cuba’s lucrative tourism sector.

That opened the door for U.S.-based Starwood Hotels, the world’s largest hotel company, to open its first Cuban hotel, and make plans to open more. Other U.S. businesses made similar plans, like home-rental platform Airbnb, which was authorized by the government to operate in Cuba.

Since these changes took effect, record numbers of Americans have visited the island. According to the Cuban government, between 2015 and 2016, the number of Americans traveling to Cuba increased by 74 percent. Philip Brenner, a Cuba policy expert at D.C.’s American University, says 290,000 Americans visited Cuba in 2016; in the first five months of 2017 alone, that same number made the trip.

In Congress, more lawmakers than ever are on record supporting the measures that would finally open up U.S.-Cuba relations once and for all: lifting the official embargoes on free travel and trade between the two countries.

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For Trump, a Cuban evolution

Early on in his unlikely rise to the White House, Trump gave few signals that he’d be eager to roll back these changes.

In 2015, Trump stated that he was “fine” with the changes Obama made — a sharp contrast from the tough talk coming from a few of his prominent rivals strongly supportive of maintaining the embargo, particularly Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Even Trump’s critics sounded hopeful tones that the candidate’s business background might make him more sympathetic to the outlook of corporate America, which generally supports opening up a new market in which to do business just 90 miles from the Florida coast.

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But as he picked up the GOP nomination and learned more about electoral realities — for example, the crucial role that Cuban-Americans can play in helping a presidential candidate win Florida — Trump changed his tune.

In the campaign’s final stretch, Trump made the pilgrimage to Miami’s Little Havana and blasted Obama’s move as a bad deal, vowing to get tougher on the Castro regime. After he took the White House, GOP politicians most vocally supportive of the toughest sanctions on Cuba — particularly Rubio and Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart — personally went to the Oval Office to lobby the president and his staff on reversing Obama’s policy.

In some measure, they succeeded, as Trump made good on those campaign promises in Miami — or at least he appeared to. In his announcement, Trump hit all the notes for a politician courting the influential South Florida Cuban community, appearing alongside Rubio, Cuban community leaders, and veterans of the failed covert Bay of Pigs operation as he signed executive orders. “We now hold the cards,” Trump proclaimed.

That a small, influential group pushed for the president’s move on Cuba was disappointing to 6th District Rep. Tom Emmer, who has been one of the loudest advocates within the GOP for a new direction on Cuba policy.

In an interview with MinnPost, Emmer said he was frustrated with how a few people have exerted enormous influence on the process. “You might be able to whittle it down to two players who are dictating a policy for the entire country, that the entire country does not agree with,” he said.

“There are a couple of people that serve in this body that have personal agendas, and they’d like us to stay with the same failed policy of the last 55 years,” he said.

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What actually changed?

Despite the show in Miami, observers say that the changes Trump outlined are hardly as significant as he’s touted them to be. American University’s Brenner said it’s “surprising how little he did,” adding that his announcement “was more theater than it was substance.”

Trump’s order does two main things: It makes travel to Cuba more difficult for U.S. nationals, and it impedes the ability of U.S. businesses to operate in Cuba.

The kind of individual tourism that has flourished will fall under greater scrutiny, as Trump’s order gives government agencies authority to strictly audit trips to ensure that they meet the requirements for permitted travel. These 12 approved purposes for Cuba travel are somewhat broad, from “educational activity” to “support for the Cuban people.”

In a summary released Friday, the White House said that “travel for non-academic educational purposes will be limited to group travel.… The self-directed, individual travel permitted by the Obama administration will be prohibited.”

While still permitted, these group trips, which often are billed as “people-to-people” exchanges, will face additional restrictions, too.

Trump’s order does not roll back changes that allow U.S. airlines and cruise ships to operate between the U.S. and Cuba. Several airlines have already begun service, while Mendota Heights-based Sun Country plans to begin service from Minneapolis-St. Paul to two Cuban destinations, Santa Clara and Matanzas, by the end of the year. (Sun Country declined to comment on its Cuba plans for this article.)

However, experts foresee that the change will discourage travel to Cuba going forward, and harm air carriers and ship operators by depriving them of passengers.

“I’d say that airlines will suffer a 25 percent loss,” Brenner said. “They’ll probably have fewer flights. … Instead of every day, they’ll go three times a week. I don’t think they’re going to stop going; there will be travel, but fewer Americans.”

Beyond travel, Trump’s new order blocks U.S. business entities from working with the regime’s military-linked corporation, Grupo de Administración Empresarial, or GAESA, which controls much of Cuba’s tourism sector.

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GAESA runs the island’s retail sector, and has a majority stake in the nearly 60 hotels in Cuba, most of which are foreign-run. Starwood, the American hotel conglomerate, worked with GAESA to develop its hotel plans on the island.

Emmer said he doubted that the president would leave companies who had invested in Cuba high and dry. “I doubt he’s going to tell Starwood, now you’re going to lose your investment.” (As the Washington Post pointed out, however, Trump’s hotel chain once had designs on expanding into Cuba — and this decision blocks Starwood, a competitor, from gaining an edge.)

Debating the consequences for Cuba

The White House argued that a major obstacle to Cuban prosperity is the military’s influence in the economy: In a memo, it said that Trump will “encourage American commerce with free Cuban businesses and pressure the Cuban government to allow the Cuban people to expand the private sector.”

By directing dollars to businesses that are not linked to the military, the administration argued the policy change will allow smaller entrepreneurs to thrive.

But Brenner says the rollback will hurt those entrepreneurs more than anyone, many of whom have benefited from the opportunity to open their homes up to visitors through Airbnb. “Airbnb might not notice a loss in revenue,” he said, “but individual entrepreneurs will.”

Some Minnesotan members of Congress in both parties could not disagree more with those points from White House: They argued that these changes reaffirm a half-century of failed policy toward Cuba, and will not isolate the ruling regime, but rather the Cuban people.

Emmer blasted Trump’s move in a strong statement on Friday; he said he was “extremely disappointed. … With today’s directive, the Administration is limiting our opportunities to improve the human rights and religious liberties of the Cuban people, not expanding them.”

In a statement, Sen. Amy Klobuchar — who has introduced the legislation to lift the trade embargo on Cuba multiple times — called the developments not a rollback, but a setback. “These changes will disadvantage our businesses and undermine American tourism,” she said, adding that a Minnesotan delegation traveling to Cuba this week, led by Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, will send the message that Minnesotans continue to want to do business with Cubans.

Minnesota advocates of increased engagement with Cuba often argue that the island could be a rich market for the state’s agricultural products, as well as its medical technology.

Democratic Rep. Tim Walz, whose 1st District thrives on agriculture, said in a statement that Trump is “hurting our national interests and the interests of Minnesota’s farmers and ranchers.”

Whatever you want to call it — a rollback, a reset — there’s broad concern that Trump’s move will discourage Cubans from doing business with Americans going forward. According to Brenner, “the process of opening up to Cuba has been halted for the time being. Cuba, as it’s figuring out what it’s trying to do, is going to look elsewhere than the U.S.”

Advocates for a Cuba detente are optimistic that the avenues for change aren’t blocked off yet.

“If this is what he’s going to do, I don’t know if he’s going all that far,” Emmer said. “If there’s a promise he’s honoring, he’s doing it in the lightest of fashions. We get to work about what the details are.”

Advocates of the Cuba re-opening in Congress vowed to continue pressing for legislation lifting the trade and travel embargoes on Cuba, even if the specter of a Trump veto now hangs over their efforts.

Emmer said certain changes — such as targeted measures on agricultural trade, for example — could move as provisions attached to larger bills, like spending legislation.

“Many of us will be advocating very strongly to continue moving forward,” the congressman said. “The president, I think he’s going to be listening.”