clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trump tightens Cuba travel rules

The US bans cruises and restricts certain travel in a move meant to pressure Cuba.

Old American cars drive past a cruise ship docked in Havana, Cuba, on August 10, 2018.
Old American cars drive past a cruise ship docked in Havana, Cuba, on August 10, 2018.
Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The Trump administration is moving ahead with new travel restrictions for Cuba.

The new rules ban US cruise ships from stopping in Cuba and eliminate the “people to people” travel loophole that has allowed Americans to visit the the island nation as part of organized group educational tours and thereby get around the myriad federal restrictions limiting travel to the communist country.

According to the Treasury Department, the new rules will go into effect Wednesday. Travelers who’ve already booked their trips will be allowed to continue with their plans, however.

The new restrictions serve two purposes for the Trump administration: fulfilling a campaign pledge of the president’s and punishing Cuba for its support of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, whom the US has been trying to oust for months.

Trump promised to roll back Obama-era measures opening up travel and trade with Cuba

In 2014 the Obama administration re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba, reversing a decades long policy that dated back to the Cold War, after months of backchannel negotiations. The Obama administration also loosened some economic and travel restrictions on Cuba, which eventually allowed for commercial cruise and airline trips from the US.

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump slammed the move, calling it a “one-sided deal for Cuba” that “benefits only the Castro regime,” and pledged to undo the measures “unless the Castro regime meets our demands.”

Since becoming president, Trump has followed through on that promise. In 2017, the Trump administration curtailed private and individual “educational” trips to the island and put restrictions on American companies doing business with entities tied to the Cuban military or intelligence services. Trump has also allowed US citizens to sue for restitution of property seized by the communist government when it took power in 1959.

These latest measures don’t appear to affect commercial air travel, though private and corporate aircraft, along with private vessels, will also be barred under the new regulations, according to the Treasury Department. Certain types of travel is also still allowed, according to CBS News, including for academic research, performance, and humanitarian projects.

But the elimination of group travel for educational or culture tours basically nixes one of the most popular ways people to get to Cuba. “It kills the people-to-people category, which is the most common way for the average American to travel to Cuba,” Collin Laverty, head of Cuba Educational Travel, told the Associated Press.

The new restrictions are also part of the administration’s attempt to punish Cuba for its continued support of Venezuela’s president

In January, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself the country’s rightful president. He argued that Maduro, who has been in power for six years, rigged the election last May that kept him in charge — and that as a result, Guaidó, as the head of the National Assembly, is now the rightful interim president of the country according to the Venezuelan constitution.

The Trump administration backs Guaidó and has launched a major effort to remove Maduro from power. The US has sanctioned members of Maduro’s regime, sent food and humanitarian aid for Guaidó to distribute to supporters, and tried to rally allies internationally to back Guaidó’s campaign.

But it hasn’t been successful: Maduro remains entrenched and the US has exhausted many of its options short of military action.

Bolton on Tuesday blamed Cuba for “propping up the illegitimate Maduro regime in Venezuela and will be held responsible for this ongoing man-made crisis.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also called out Cuba in a statement, saying it continues to “play a destabilizing role in the Western Hemisphere, providing a communist foothold in the region and propping up U.S. adversaries in places like Venezuela and Nicaragua by fomenting instability, undermining the rule of law, and suppressing democratic processes,”

“This Administration has made a strategic decision to reverse the loosening of sanctions and other restrictions on the Cuban regime,” Mnuchin continued. “These actions will help to keep U.S. dollars out of the hands of Cuban military, intelligence, and security services.”

All of these policy moves reflect the administration’s Cold War-esque approach to Latin America that has emerged since Bolton arrived as National Security Advisor.

In a November speech, Bolton dubbed Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela part of the “troika of tyranny,” which he blamed for “the genesis of a sordid cradle of communism in the Western Hemisphere.”

The administration is hoping to pressure the Cuban regime by cutting off US tourism and the boost to tourism it brings. But Cuba’s response — and decades of history — suggests that won’t be happening anytime soon.

Cuban foreign minister Bruno Eduardo Rodríguez Parrilla blasted the sanctions, saying “once again they will fail.”

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.