If President Donald Trump did one thing during his Miami trip it was stir up simmering passions about the best course for U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Neither side in the emotional debate — those who favor a more hardline approach and those who favor the former Obama administration approach — got exactly what they wanted from Trump, although those who favor a middle ground that aims at sanctioning the Cuban military while not hampering Cuban Americans’ ability to travel and send money to relatives on the island may be most pleased.
In the Manuel Artime Theater, which was festooned with American flags and red-white-and-blue bunting, Trump told the enthusiastic crowd he was “canceling completely” former President Barack Obama’s “one-sided deal with Cuba.”
“The actual policy didn’t match the rhetoric in the theater,” said Christopher Sabatini, a professor at Columbia School of International and Public Affairs. “Many of the things that hardliners have denounced will seemingly remain in place.” He said he was surprised that Trump hadn’t instituted a further rollback of the Obama opening, perhaps curtailing cruises to Cuba or restricting embassy operations.
Trump’s new Cuba policy left big chunks of the Obama policy of engagement intact, while instituting a policy designed to economically starve important Cuban military enterprises from cash they take in from American visitors and, to a lesser extent, U.S. businesses.
The Cuba Study Group, which is made up of business executives and professionals who support engagement, took a glass half-full view of the new policy.
“President Trump’s announcement today indicates how far the Cuba policy debate has moved, despite intense pressure from scarce Congressional hardliners. Many of the gains of normalization remain intact,” the organization said in a statement. “At best, this is a partial victory for those who hoped to reverse increased bilateral ties.”
But instead of “half-measures” proposed by the president, the group said Trump should pursue a policy of full normalization with the island. “Restricting U.S. travel isolates Cubans from knowledge of American political, economic, and human rights norms.”
For Everett E. Briggs, a retired U.S. ambassador, the new Trump policy didn’t go far enough.
“I regret that he did not go further in adopting the changes to Obama’s misbegotten actions I and a number of former State Department colleagues advocated earlier this year — namely, to bring U.S. policy into line with existing U.S. law — the Cuba Democracy Act and the Cuba Liberty and Democracy Restoration Act,” he said. “Exempting Cuban ports and airports from the prohibition on dealing with Cuba is a mistake.”
“Some will probably say this is not enough, but this is a good start,” said Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba. “Today the dismantling of Obama’s outrageous orders have begun.”
Trump’s policy retained the Obama-era’s travel opening for Americans, which allows them to visit Cuba if they fall into 12 categories of travel such as family visits, and religious, humanitarian and educational trips. It does, however, eliminate the ability for Americans to pursue individual people-to-people educational trips.
Calzon said he would be watching closely how the new Cuba policy is implemented.” Some people, he said, use religious exchanges as disguised tourism and a pretext to go to nightclubs. One of the cornerstones of the Trump policy is to allow travel but to strictly enforce “the statutory ban on tourism.”
New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez also called the new Cuba policy “a step in the right direction.” He said he was pleased that the president made the return of Joanne Chesimard, a fugitive from justice now living in Cuba, contingent on future engagement with Cuba. Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur, is a former Black Panther who escaped from a New Jersey prison where she was serving a life sentence for murdering a state trooper.
In Cuba, state media outlets offered live updates of Trump's speech.
“The president continues to refer to the Cuban people and Cuban Americans, but ignores polls that indicate that 75% of Americans support the rapprochement between Havana and Washington or that the vast majority of Cubans on the island reject the policy of aggression that has marked relations between the two countries during the last decades,” stated Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba.
The headline in an article posted on CubaDebate, an official Cuban website, took Trump’s speech rhetoric at face value: “Donald Trump cancels Obama’s bilateral agreement with Cuba.”
On the streets of Miami, reaction was mixed.
“Trump is the one who is going to take the communism out of Cuba,” said Robert Linares, a 47-year-old warehouse manager whose parents were born in Cuba.
But across the way outside the Manuel Artime Theater, Javier Lopez Rodriguez, a Cuban-born substitute teacher who works in Miami-Dade, protested Trump’s new policy, yelling his displeasure into a megaphone.
“It goes against the spirit of the constitution,” he said. “Maybe not the wording explicitly, but the spirit when it was signed. In Saudi Arabia, they violate more human rights than in Cuba.”
Humberto Arguelles, president of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association, said Trump showed he has “great interest” in pursuing improved human rights in Cuba.
“What Trump did is of great value because it shows that the cause of liberty in Cuba is still alive,” he said at a press conference at the Miami Hispanic Cultural Arts Center following Trump's event.
Although Trump said that “we will never turn our backs on the Cuban people,” some analysts said his new policy could end up stifling the small private businesses the president emphatically says he wants to support.
“We are encouraged that the Trump administration wants to help Cuba’s private sector. Unfortunately, the people who will be most negatively impacted by this directive are Cuban entrepreneurs,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba.
“The confusion that will surround this policy will undoubtedly stifle U.S. demand to travel to the island,” he said, and that in turn will hurt private businesses that engage with Americans.
The prohibition on doing business with military enterprises is far-reaching in the tourism sector. The military conglomerate GAESA controls about 40 percent of hotel rooms in Cuba, the largest fleet of Chinese-made tourism buses, most government shops and restaurants in picturesque Old Havana, the HavanaAuto rental car company, gas stations, and even the ServiCentro stores where visitors might pick up a bottle of water.
That could be the “poison pill,” of Trump’s new policy, said Pedro Freyre, a Miami lawyer who represents U.S. companies that have done business with Cuba or are trying to strike deals.
American travelers may be so confused about what they can and can’t do and where they can stay or eat or which taxi to hail that they may decide to stay home, he said.
Pro-engagement supporters criticized a return to sanctions and pressure to force the Cuban government’s hand. Taking a sanctions approach, they said, may backfire and won’t result in the United States getting a better deal for Americans or the Cuban people.
“I think this reignites the confrontational dynamics between Cuba and the United States,” said Freyre. “This fuels the extremes on both sides.”
“Reversing course on Cuba will dash the hopes of millions on the island who felt empowered after Obama’s visit. It will be rejected by two-thirds of the American public — Republicans and Democrats alike — as well as by a majority of Cuban Americans in Florida,” said Jose W. Fernandez, a New York lawyer who served as assistant secretary of state for economic, energy and business affairs in the Obama administration.
“It goes against the advice of U.S. military experts,” he said. “And it will open the door to Russian and Chinese influence while shutting out American businesses.”
Trump has forged his policy in the name of his preoccupation with human rights abuses and lack of religious freedom in Cuba. Although some Cuban dissidents do favor pressure tactics, international human rights organizations and some members of Congress aren’t buying the notion that less engagement and pressure are the best way to achieve that goal.
“You can’t improve human rights by withdrawing from a relationship with Cuba,” said Minnesota Republican Rep. Tom Emmer, an early Trump supporter who favors lifting the embargo.
“He [Trump] must be listening to a very small group of voices — perhaps as few as three in Congress,” said Emmer. “Actually less than 10,” he amended.
South Florida Republican Reps. Mario Diaz Balart and Carlos Curbelo and Sen. Marco Rubio accompanied Trump on the Air Force One flight from Washington.
“It is clear to us that there are real human rights abuses in Cuba and there have been for many years, but a policy of isolation does nothing to improve the human rights situation,” said Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America.
“The only chance to really improve the record of the Cuban government is by dismantling the embargo as a precondition, and to have the US government, as well as European and Latin democracies exercising multilateral pressure, not in the form of a multilateral embargo, but through diplomatic pressure to expose the record of the Cuban government on human rights,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch.
Trump’s new Cuba policy also comes at a time when the administration has proposed dropping funding for Cuban democracy programs from $20 million to $0 for Fiscal 2018.
“There is no money for Cuban democracy programs established by the Helms Burton Act,” said José “Pepe” Hernández, president of the Cuban American National Foundation and a director of the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba. “We need to make sure the opposition continues to be supported.”
Money that was budgeted this year for material support of human rights and opposition activists inside Cuba also hasn’t been fully disbursed, he said, and some organizations that bid for contracts to aid activists on the island were turned down. “The money exists but not much has been put into use,” he said.
On the surface, Trump has left most of the Obama administration’s Cuba travel policies intact. One change that’s spelled out is that individuals may no longer undertake educational trips whose purpose is to interact with the Cuban people on their own. Anyone traveling under that category must now be a part of a group.
Miami Herald reporter Martin Vassolo contributed to this report.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi