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Thursday, 19 October 2017 06:25

Trump Ratchets Up Tensions With Cuba

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cubatrumpTrump wants to move backward on relations with Cuba. (Photo: Balint Földesi)

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It did not receive prolonged coverage -- and you may not have noticed -- but over this summer Donald Trump announced that he was tightening the criteria for travel to Cuba. His overall objective was apparently his ideological opposition to the Cuban state, now under the leadership of Raúl Castro. According to a CNN article from June, Trump made the criteria for US citizens traveling to Cuba stricter:

Casting the Obama administration as people who looked the other way on the Castro regime's human rights violations, Trump said that he, as President, will "expose the crimes of the Castro regime."

"They made a deal with a government that spread violence and instability in the region and nothing they got, think about it, nothing they got, they fought for everything and we just didn't fight hard enough, but now, those days are over," Trump said. "We now hold the cards. The previous administration's easing of restrictions of travel and trade does not help the Cuban people. They only enrich the Cuban regime."

Although Trump said he was "completely" canceling Obama's Cuba policy, the change is posture is only a partial shift from Obama's policy....

The Trump administration will begin strictly enforcing the authorized exemptions that allow travel between the US and Cuba and prohibit commerce with Cuban businesses owned by the military and intelligence services.

The Trump White House, however, is not severing embassy ties to Cuba or prohibiting Americans from bringing back goods from Cuba, including rum and cigars.

It also remains to be seen how stringently the Trump administration intends to enforce restrictions on US citizens' travel to Cuba. The Obama administration had essentially stopped forcing Americans to prove that they were eligible for travel to Cuba under certain exemptions. Trump stated that travel to Cuba would again require US government approval. However, that policy does not appear to have been put into place as of this date.

It is interesting to note that there may also be another incentive at work: Trump's desire to limit competition from other hotel brands. As noted by CNN,

Trump's new policy will directly limit commerce with GAESA, the Cuban military's business and commerce wing. The company is run by Gen. Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, Raul Castro's son-in-law.

That action could adversely impact hotel brands that directly compete with Trump's business empire, making it more difficult for them expand their foothold in Cuba. Gaviota, GAESA's tourism arm, currently operates the Four Points by Sheraton Havana, a hotel that, when it opened, was the first US hotel to open in Cuba in nearly 60 years.

Meanwhile, last month the Trump administration reduced the US embassy staff in Cuba to essential personnel, claiming that the embassy was being bombarded with sonic attacks that were adversely impacting the health of some staff members. According to an October 16 article in Politico,

President Donald Trump said Monday that he holds the Cuban government accountable for sonic attacks on American personnel at the embassy in Havana.

Trump told reporters during a Rose Garden news conference that he agrees with chief of staff John Kelly, who told reporters last week that the administration believes "the Cuban government could stop the attacks on our diplomats."

However, Progreso Weekly noted that Trump has no evidence of any Cuba-initiated sonic bombardment on the embassy in Havana:

The U.S. complaint about the health issues originated almost a year ago during the Obama Administration when the two governments were working toward rapprochement. As acknowledged by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Cuban government responded immediately and initiated an investigation, inviting the U.S. government to cooperate.

At the invitation of Cuban authorities, the FBI went to Havana seeking evidence of what the U.S. described as "sonic attacks" resulting in hearing loss and other symptoms. However, its agents found no devices or other evidence to explain the mystery.

None of the 500,000 U.S. visitors to Cuba this year have reported similar health issues. Tillerson said this week, "We have no reports that private U.S. citizens have been affected…."

The independent publication Havana Times challenges Trump's recent finger-pointing at Cuba for the mysterious alleged maladies at the US embassy:

They have created the perfect situation so that the current president of the Empire, who is completely oblivious to Cuban reality and to what a president of a country that wants to be a world leader should be, can take ridiculous measures, which have most likely been asked for by people in Miami, to reduce US-Cuba relations to the bare minimum.

Accusing Cuba of carrying out this attack, or of not having stopped those who did, doesn’t make any sense. Who would benefit from this situation? To be precise, those who have tried to stop relations improving between both countries at all costs, because they have made a great business out of the Cuba-US dispute and the counter-revolution.

The Trump administration also warned US travelers that they might be targets of this unexplained alleged sonic attack, which will likely discourage travel to the island if the administration continues to emphasize the unresolved mystery.

What is not a mystery is the Trump administration's policy direction. The president is returning to the days when policy toward Cuba was largely determined by an aging Miami-based population of Cubans. They generally consist of supporters of the late Fulgencio Batista -- the dictator that Fidel Castro overthrew -- and younger right-wing Cubans.

Fidel Castro died in 2016. The Cold War policies and tension that Trump is fomenting are destructive relics of a bygone era. We should be embracing Cuba and developing a flourishing future together as nations, not returning to regrettable historical acrimony.