Republicans divided as Trump reverses some Obama Cuba policy

Trump said he would restrict USA tourist visits to the island, which had increased as part of cultural exchange travel approved by Obama.

The government has though repeated its desire to engage in "respectful dialogue" with Washington.

But his policy announced Friday contains a measure that could damage thousands of small-business people who host, feed and transport independent American travelers to Cuba. 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. His aides contend that Obama's easing of US restrictions amounted to "appeasement" and has done nothing to advance political freedoms in Cuba, while benefiting the Cuban government financially.

The President said it was hard to think of a policy "that makes less sense than the prior administration's bad and misguided deal" with the "brutal" Castro government.

"More travel, more communications access, and more dialogue with Cuba are the way forward for human rights in Cuba", Amnesty International wrote in a blog post, adding that Obama's trip to Cuba last year opened the door to "scrutiny and transparency" of human rights on the island for the first time in almost 10 years. "The Cuban people will continue deciding themselves on the changes necessary for Cuba".

The new policy will ban most US business transactions with the Armed Forces Business Enterprises Group (GAESA), a sprawling conglomerate involved in all sectors of the economy, but make some exceptions, including for air and sea travel, the officials said. 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.

The changes will not go into effect until regulations are drafted by the US Treasury Department and other agencies, officials said.

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The Obama policy is likely to be revised rather than reversed entirely. Now it turns out that the anti-Cuban discourse is still in high demand. "We're the ones who are hurt".

The Cuban government also called the Trump's executive order a "backward step", saying the administration was resorting to "coercive methods from the past" in taking steps to strengthen the embargo.

As a result, the changes - though far-reaching - appear to be less sweeping than many advocates had feared.

Cuba functioned as a virtual US colony for much of the 20th century, and even reform-minded Cubans are highly sensitive to perceived USA infringements on national sovereignty. "On the other hand, we think we've achieved very little in terms of changing the behavior of the regime in Cuba and its treatment of people", he said, "and it has little incentive to change that".

As word of Trump's proposals began to emerge this week, Benjamin Rhodes, a former senior Obama official who negotiated much of the thaw with Cuba, said it was important to focus on what would "not change" including diplomatic relations, bilateral cooperation in areas such as narcotics trafficking and immigration.

The US president framed it as a move against a "cruel and brutal" regime: bypassing the state military-run business group GAESA to channel investment to the people. "This will be the first time in several decades that the Cuban people will have an economic advantage over the Cuban military".

Yet, while Cuba's tourism resurgence is a big part of the problem in the territory's efforts to grow its product and keep it relevant, Havana is only one player in a multi-prong threat that includes neighboring ports like Puerto Rico, Tortola and also St. Maarten, whose governments are investing heavily in rebranding, extending and promoting their own tourism offerings.

  • Sonia Alvarado