(CN) — Broadly supported by most U.S. and Cuban citizens, former President Barack Obama’s historic normalization of relations between the two nations received a setback Friday as his successor unveiled new restrictions on business and travel.
“Effective immediately,” President Donald Trump said, “I am canceling the prior administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba.”
For the venue of this afternoon’s address — the Manuel Artime theater in Miami, Florida’s Little Havana — Trump could hardly have chosen a more foreboding symbol of a disastrous foreign-policy maneuver.
The Artime theater is named after the Cuban exile who led the Bay of Pigs invasion, a covert CIA plot to overthrow Fidel Castro two years after the 1959 end of the revolution.
It was a spectacular failure, with more than 100 members of the U.S.-trained Brigade 2506 killed, more than 1,000 captured, and Castro scoring a decisive military victory that strengthened his then-nascent rule.
But the brigade’s veterans, exiles living in Miami, remain a potent political force whose endorsement helped nudge Trump a little more than a percentage point to victory in the swing state of Florida.
Trump acknowledged the boost, in characteristically grandiose terms, in his speech Friday.
“Florida as a whole, and this community supported us by tremendous margins,” he told a crowd of hundreds. “We really appreciated it.”
Ripping up Obama’s cautious olive branch toward the Cuban government, the president offered unrestrained antagonism.
“Many of you witnessed terrible crimes in service of a depraved ideology,” he said.
Entering the stage to the tune of “Hail to the Chief,” Trump’s roughly 45-minute address amounted to a CliffsNotes version of a U.S. hardliner’s complaints against Cuba — namely its economic system, human-rights record and historical grievances.
In a Cold War rewind, Trump invoked the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which he said almost brought “enemy nuclear weapons 90 miles from our shore.”
Trump also slammed Cuba’s granting of asylum to Assata Shakur, a Black Panther whom he referred to by her married name, JoAnne Chesimard, and called a “cop killer.”
“The harboring of criminals and fugitives will end,” Trump said. “You have no choice. It will end.”
Human Rights Watch urged Trump not to exacerbate U.S.-Cuban relations, saying that the half-century old embargo has caused only suffering.
“The previous administration was right to reject a policy that hurt ordinary Cubans and did nothing to advance human rights,” Human Rights Watch managing director Daniel Wilkinson said in a statement.
To William LeoGrande, dean of American University’s School of Public Affairs, the site of Trump’s speech shows the president playing to a crowd who did him a favor.
“It demonstrates that Donald Trump is treating Cuba as a domestic political issue, not a foreign-policy issue,” LeoGrande said in a phone interview. “He’s paying off a political debt to Cuban-Americans who endorsed him, the veterans association of the Bay of Pigs.”
Indeed, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the president’s erstwhile opponent and a Cuban-American Republican, said that Trump repeatedly spoke about his Brigade 2506 endorsement, both on election night and after.
“I want them to know, more than 60 years later, they have made a difference,” Rubio said today, referring to those brigade veterans.
“Our Embassy Remains Open”
As the author of “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana,” LeoGrande said in an interview before the speech that many aspects of the detente will remain untouched.
The White House’s summary of Trump’s orders prove the professor’s predictions correct.
Cruise ships and airlines will continue service to the island. The old “wet foot, dry foot” policy that once gave automatic U.S. legal permanent residency to Cuban migrants will stay overturned. U.S. and Cuban embassies will remain open on each others’ soil, and certain categories of travelers will continue to have general license to travel without Department of State permission.
“Our embassy remains open in the hopes that our countries can forge a much better path,” Trump said in his speech.
U.S. travelers can still bring back Cuban cigars and rum.
But U.S. travelers can expect a closer watch from the Department of the Treasury, which will now enforce the Trump administration’s ban against U.S. citizens spending money on companies controlled by the Cuban military.
For Cuba, LeoGrande notes, that includes roughly half of the hotels and the tourist sector of the economy.
“That’s going to make it very difficult for the average U.S. visitor because you’ll have to know which hotel reports to the armed forces as opposed to, say, the ministry of tourism,” the professor said.
“The State Department will put out a list of the banned enterprises, but the average tourist getting off a plane and looking for a hotel can easily run afoul of the U.S. embargo inadvertently,” he added.
To avoid those violations, travelers can choose to stay at a Cuban bed-and-breakfast, known there as casas particulares.
Airbnb capitalized on that system in the Obama era by connecting Cuban hosts with U.S. travelers, and the company’s spokesman Nick Papas confirmed that Trump’s policy would not close the company’s bookings.
“Travel from the U.S. to Cuba is an important way to encourage people-to-people diplomacy,” Papas said in an email.
“While we are reviewing what this policy could mean for this type of travel, we appreciate that the policy appears to allow us to continue to support Airbnb hosts in Cuba who have welcomed travelers from around the world,” he added.
Cuban hosts could see a decline in business, however, because Trump ended Obama’s policy of allowing educational person-to-person travel.
Even though the half-century-old U.S. embargo made tourism technically barred under Obama’s rapprochement, the person-to-person policy made it easier for individuals to travel to the island without booking through a third-party tourism group.
Trump’s new policy reverts to the old system where authorized tourism outfits take control of education travel.
“They’re going to book you into a Cuban government hotel,” LeoGrande said. “By doing away with the individual people-to-people category, they’re actually going to be hurting the private room rentals, the private bed and breakfasts.”
With a desk set up onstage, Trump signed a document that he said would implement the policies immediately after his speech.
“Obviously Inconsistent” on Human Rights
LeoGrande believes that the broad popularity of Obama’s detente — among Democrats, Republicans, Cubans and even Cuban-Americans — prevented Trump from going farther on his reversals.
Earlier this week, a Morning Consult poll found that 65 percent of U.S. respondents support maintaining Obama’s policies and only 18 percent oppose. That number includes 64 percent of Republican voters.
Last September, a surprising biannual poll from Florida International University found that 63 percent of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County, presumed to be a hotbed of hardline opposition to Cuba engagement, support fully lifting the embargo.
“So that constrains the president a certain degree,” LeoGrande said.
Inviting a violinist who fled Cuba as a boy to play the “Star-Spangled Banner” onstage, as audience members chanted “Cuba libre” in support of his speech, Trump’s crowd bore little resemblance to the majority detected by university pollsters.
In a speech before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated that the Trump administration would try to pressure Cuba on human-rights grounds.
“Cuba has failed to improve its own human rights record, political opponents continue to be imprisoned, dissidents continue to be jailed, women continue to be harassed,” Tillerson said. “So what we have to achieve in approaching Cuba is, if we’re going to sustain the sunny side of this relationship, Cuba must – absolutely must – begin to address its human rights challenges.”
Standing in stark contrast to the White House’s position on Phillipine leader Rodrigo Duterte, Turkish autocrat Recep Erdogan and the Saudi royal family, Tillerson’s rhetoric is also undermined by his speech last month that human rights must take a back seat to U.S. national security interests.
LeoGrande called the White House’s position here “obviously inconsistent” with the administration’s stated “America First” policy.
“It’s pretty clear to me that the national security interest here is to stay engaged with Cuba, partly to engage with them in counternarcotics, and partly to counterbalance the efforts of China and Russia to increase their influence there,” the professor said.
Nor did LeoGrande believe that Trump’s maximal demands — for prisoner release, free expression, and reorganization of its economic and political system — will lead to any diplomatic progress.
“The Cuban government is going to reject that categorically, and so the policy is going to be frozen again like it was frozen for 50 years until we see an administration that sees the virtue of engagement,” he said.
Some of those changes the U.S. seeks may already be on the way, with President Raul Castro having announced four years ago that he will step down after his five-year term ends.
Though Castro made the announcement in 2013, Trump suggested during the speech that he played a role in it.
With lofty promises for his supporters, Trump’s motorcade headed toward Miami International Airport this afternoon, leaving a hot and sticky Florida summer for a cooler Washington, and a chillier era for U.S.-Cuban relations.