MIAMI >> Pressing “pause” on a historic detente, President Donald Trump thrust the U.S. and Cuba back on a path toward open hostility today with a blistering denunciation of the island’s communist government. He clamped down on some commerce and travel but left intact many new avenues President Barack Obama had opened.
The Cuban government responded by rejecting what it called Trump’s “hostile rhetoric.” Still, Cuba said it is willing to continue “respectful dialogue” with topics of mutual interest.
Even as Trump predicted a quick end to President Raul Castro’s regime, he challenged Cuba to negotiate better agreements for Americans, Cubans and those whose identities lie somewhere in between. Diplomatic relations, restored only two years ago, will remain intact. But, in a shift from Obama’s approach, Trump said trade and other penalties would stay in place until a long list of prerequisites was met.
“America has rejected the Cuban people’s oppressors,” Trump said in Miami’s Little Havana, the cradle of Cuban-American resistance to Castro’s government. “Officially, today, they are rejected.”
Declaring Obama’s pact with Castro a “completely one-sided deal,” Trump said he was canceling it. In practice, however, many recent changes to boost ties to Cuba will stay as they are. Trump cast that as a sign the U.S. still wanted to engage with Cuba in hopes of forging “a much stronger and better path.”
In a statement released this evening on government-run websites and television, Cuban President Raul Castro’s administration said Trump’s speech was “loaded with hostile rhetoric that recalls the times of open confrontation.”
The lengthy statement went on to strike a conciliatory tone, saying Cuba wants to continue negotiations with the U.S. on a variety of subjects. “The last two years have shown that the two countries can cooperate and coexist in a civilized way,” it said.
Embassies in Havana and Washington will remain open. U.S. airlines and cruise ships will still be allowed to serve the island 90 miles south of Florida. The “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which once let most Cuban migrants stay if they made it to U.S. soil but was terminated under Obama, will remain terminated. Remittances from people in America to Cubans won’t be cut off.
But individual “people-to-people” trips by Americans to Cuba, allowed by Obama for the first time in decades, will again be prohibited. And the U.S. government will police other trips to ensure travelers are pursuing a “full-time schedule of educational exchange activities.”
The changes won’t go into effect until new documents laying out details are issued. Once implemented Trump’s policy is expected to curtail U.S. travel by creating a maze of rules for Americans to obey. The policy bans most financial transactions with a yet-unreleased list of entities associated with Cuba’s military and state security, including a conglomerate that dominates much of Cuba’s economy, such as many hotels, state-run restaurants and tour buses.
Surrounded by Florida Republican officials, the president was unabashed about the political overtones of his election victory and today’s announcement:
“You went out and you voted, and here I am, like I promised.”
Cheered by Cuba hardliners in both parties, Trump’s new policy is broadly opposed by U.S. businesses eager to invest in Cuba.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, typically supportive of GOP presidents, predicted the changes would limit prospects for “positive change on the island,” while Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., said Trump’s policy was “misguided” and will hurt the U.S. economically.
Trump’s declaration in a crowded, sweltering auditorium was a direct rebuke to Obama, for whom the diplomatic opening with Cuba was a central accomplishment of his presidency.
Yet it also exposed the shortcomings in Obama’s approach.
Unable to persuade Congress to lift the decades-old trade embargo, Obama had used his power to adjust the rules that implement the embargo to expand built-in loopholes. Obama and his aides argued that commerce and travel between the countries, which has blossomed since he relaxed the rules, would make his policy irreversible.
Ben Rhodes, the former deputy national security adviser who negotiated Obama’s opening with the Cubans, said it was disappointing Trump was halting the momentum that had built but added that it could have been worse.
“This is a limitation on what we did, not a reversal of what we did,” Rhodes said in an interview.
For Cubans, the shift risks stifling a nascent middle class that has started to rise as Americans have flocked to the island on airlines, patronizing thousands of private bed-and-breakfasts.
“When he’s cutting back on travel, he’s hurting us, the Cuban entrepreneurs,” said Camilo Diaz, a 44-year-old waiter in a restaurant in Havana. “We’re the ones who are hurt.”
Granma, the official organ of Cuba’s Communist Party, described Trump’s declarations in real-time blog coverage Friday as “a return to imperialist rhetoric and unilateral demands.” Cuba’s government may not formally respond to Trump’s speech until a speech Monday by its foreign minister.
The Castro government is certain to reject Trump’s list of demands, which includes releasing political prisoners, halting what the U.S. says is abuse of dissidents and greater freedom of expression. Refusing to negotiate domestic reforms in exchange for U.S. concessions is perhaps the most fundamental plank of Cuba’s policy toward the U.S.
Cuba functioned as a virtual U.S. colony for much of the 20th century, and even reform-minded Cubans are highly sensitive to perceived U.S. infringements on national sovereignty. Trump, on the other hand, described his move as an effort to bring about a “free Cuba” after more than half a century of communism.
“I do believe that end is in the very near future,” he said.
Cuba’s 1470-word statement Friday night labeled Trump a hypocrite for calling on Cuba to improve human rights, saying the U.S. government “is threatening more limits on healthcare that would leave 23 million people without insurance … and marginalizes immigrants and refugees, particular those from Islamic countries.”
The statement reiterates Cuba’s commitment to “the necessary changes that we’re making now as part of the updating of our socio-economic model,” but says “they will continue being decided in a sovereign way by the Cuban people.”
The U.S. severed ties with Cuba in 1961 after Fidel Castro’s revolution, and spent decades trying to either overthrow the government or isolate the island, including by toughening an economic embargo first imposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Obama announced in December 2014 that he and Castro were restoring ties. Less than a year later, the U.S. Embassy in Havana re-opened, and Obama paid a historic visit to Havana in 2016.