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Trump’s tough new Cuba policy isn’t nearly as tough as he wants you to think

Trump promised to “terminate” Obama’s deal with Cuba. But his new policies don’t go nearly that far.

President Donald Trump announces his new Cuba policy at the Manuel Artime Theater in the Little Havana neighborhood on June 16, 2017, in Miami, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

President Donald Trump announced what he billed as a dramatic new Cuba policy during a speech in front of a boisterous crowd in Miami’s Little Havana. "Effective immediately,” Trump said, “I am canceling the last administration's completely one-sided deal with Cuba."

Well, not quite. The actual policy changes Trump unveiled are far less significant than he implied. Indeed, many of the elements of the Obama administration’s policy will remain in place.

Under the new policy, Americans will no longer be allowed to plan their own private, individual “educational” trips to Cuba, and those who go as part of authorized educational group tours will be subject to stricter rules, per the New York Times. American companies and citizens will also be barred from doing business with businesses controlled by the Cuban military or its intelligence or security services.

But the relaxed rules that made it easier for US companies to do business in Cuba will stay in place. Cruises and direct flights between the United States and Cuba will still be allowed. Cuban Americans will still be able to travel freely to the island and send money to relatives there. And the Cuban Embassy in Washington and the US Embassy in Havana will remain open.

Toward the end of his tenure, President Obama pursued a dramatic thawing of relations between the two Cold War enemies. Using his executive authority, Obama relaxed some of the trade and travel restrictions in the longstanding US economic embargo on the country, and last July, the US officially restored diplomatic relations with Cuba and reopened its embassy in Havana.

This was all part of a broader deal reached between the two countries in 2014 that also involved an exchange of US and Cuban political prisoners and led to Cuba being taken off the US list of state sponsors of terror.

Trump has long said he intended to roll back those Obama policies. In November, then-President-elect Trump tweeted that he would “terminate” the deal unless Cuba agreed to “make a better” one.

But far from terminating the deal, it seems Trump is content with leaving many of the most economically important Obama policies in place.

That’s almost certainly in part because a number of high-profile US businesses have already begun to move into the newly open Cuban tourism market. Reimposing strict economic and travel restrictions on the country would harm US economic interests.

What the Obama administration’s “deal” actually involved

In December 2014, after 18 months of secret negotiations, President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced that they had reached a landmark deal to gradually rebuild the economic and diplomatic relationships between the two countries.

Under the pact, the Castro government freed US government contractor Alan Gross, who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years, as well as an unnamed American intelligence operative who had been held for nearly two decades. In return, the White House released three Cuban operatives who had been jailed in the US. The administration also agreed to take Cuba off the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terror.

In addition, Obama, using his executive authority, relaxed a number of economic and trade restrictions related to the 1962 Cuban embargo. US financial institutions would be allowed open accounts with their Cuban counterparts; restrictions on US agricultural and telecommunications equipment to Cuba would be eased; Americans were also permitted to use credit and debit cards while in Cuba and send more money back to relatives in Cuba from the US; and Cubans could now buy certain US consumer goods online.

The administration also changed regulations to make it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba, including by restoring regular air travel between the two countries. But the embargo itself, which requires congressional approval to be rescinded, remained in place.

What Trump’s new policy will actually change — and what it won’t

No policy changes will go into effect immediately. Instead, the new presidential directive Trump just signed orders the Treasury and Commerce departments to begin within 30 days to write new regulations that reverse some of those Obama implemented.

Regulations allowing US commercial flights and cruise ships to travel to Cuba will not be affected. Unlimited “family” travel and money sent to private Cubans on the island will remain unchanged. And — critically — formal diplomatic relations, which were reestablished by Obama after more than five decades, will remain as well.

What will change is that Americans will no longer be allowed to plan their own private, individual “educational” trips to Cuba, and those who go as part of authorized educational group tours will be subject to stricter rules. American companies and citizens will also be barred from doing business with companies controlled by the Cuban military or its intelligence or security services.

Part of the reason Trump’s new policy doesn’t go nearly as far as his rhetoric suggests almost certainly has to do with US economic interests.

Take, for instance, the restoration of direct flights between the US and Cuba. As John Kavulich, the president of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, told me back in November, the Trump administration would likely face major pushback — including lawsuits — from the airline industry if Trump were to do that, because airlines have already made substantial financial investments in “good faith” based on the new regulations from the Obama administration.

And that’s just the airlines. A number of tourism and travel companies such as Airbnb, Carnival Cruise Line, and Starwood Hotels have also taken advantage of the Obama administration’s relaxed restrictions to expand into Cuba, hoping to cash in on what they expect will eventually become a booming new tourist hot spot.

Asked whether companies that have already signed contracts with Cuba should expect to lose money, a White House official said during the background briefing, “that will be handled in the specifics of regulations by Treasury and Commerce.” But “the administration’s intent,” the official said, “is not to disrupt existing transactions that have [already] occurred.”

So for all his talk about pushing for more “religious and political freedom for the Cuban people” — the main reasons he cites for opposing the Obama administration’s deal is that it didn’t go far enough in this direction — Trump has so far shown little commitment to promoting such values elsewhere, especially if doing so comes at the expense of US economic interests.

And even with his (somewhat) tougher stance on Cuba, Trump almost certainly won’t get the response he’s looking for. After all, 50 years of tough US policies toward Cuba failed to achieve the desired political, social, and economic reforms inside the island nation.

As Kavulich explained, “The Cuban government response to anything that President Trump does to it will be, ‘Go f— yourself, bring it on. The revolution was bigger than Fidel, it will last long after Fidel, and we can absorb whatever you want to throw at us.’”

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