Fabiola Santiago

President Trump’s ballyhooed Cuba travel policy is topsy-turvy

In this May 2, 2016 photo, people waving Cuban flags greet passengers on Carnival's Adonia cruise ship as they arrive from Miami in Havana, Cuba.
In this May 2, 2016 photo, people waving Cuban flags greet passengers on Carnival's Adonia cruise ship as they arrive from Miami in Havana, Cuba. AP

My first reaction to President Donald Trump’s ballyhooed Cuba policy was to message my millennial American daughter to let her know that she can go ahead with her plans to visit Havana: “You can book your cruise.”

Turns out the supposedly big reversal of President Barack Obama’s engagement policy — instigated by Cuban Americans Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart — exempts the airline and cruise ship industries, which stood to lose $3.5 billion from a rollback of Treasury Department regulations that allow them to add Cuba ports of call to their Caribbean itineraries.

Just don’t call cruising “tourism.” Don’t sit on the beach. But sail away to the otherwise forbidden island!

It’s the only clear part of the Trump-Rubio-Diaz-Balart travel policy outlined in an eight-page directive obtained by the Miami Herald.

The rest is topsy-turvy.

Trump and his posse of hard-line helpers ended the real people-to-people engagement — that of independent American travelers who stay in Airbnb homes and apartments or casas particulares, dine in private paladares all over the island, visit independent artists and cuentapropistas on their own, and get to know Cubans one on one. This, to force Americans to travel in groups organized by tour operators or organizations approved by the Treasury Department.

The reason given at a briefing: Independent travel “is a category ripe for abuse,” a Trump administration official said, a way to ensure that travelers are “not sitting on the beach.”

This makes no sense.

The policy seems to work against the stated purpose of restricting the flow of money to the Cuban military, which owns 60 percent of the state-run tourism through its GAESA enterprise. When you require travelers to go through tour companies, you’re sending the business to state-run hotels and state-run institutions. I don’t see value other than handing over a Cuba travel monopoly to U.S. tour operators.

“Anyone who has been to Cuba in the last 50 years knows that forcing US travelers to go in tour groups is a guaranteed way to hurt entrepreneurs,” tweeted Tomas Bilbao, managing director of Avila Strategies. “Cuban Airbnb’s can’t accommodate group tours... Individual travelers are [the] lifeblood of entrepreneurs.”

You can also tell policymakers haven’t studied the itineraries of travel operators and organizations. They take people to state institutions, visit official touristy areas, use official tour guides, and carry on cultural exchanges with Cubans who are state-approved. And they can’t supervise their travelers around the clock to make sure nobody runs off to sit on the beach or dip their feet in enemy water.

Such control might help streamline the Big Brother work of the Treasury Department, which will audit itineraries from now on instead on relying on the Obama-era honor system that allowed people more open engagement under the 12 categories of permitted travel. And it might help with our trusty Homeland Security at the airport when they question you on arrival ... and maybe test your toes for any trace of salt.

This policy is window dressing, a way for Trump to save face with Bay of Pigs veterans and his Cuban-American supporters, to whom he promised “a better deal” than President Obama’s.

There’s no reversal of Obama’s restoration of relations and engagement policy. President Trump’s fake indignation with his predecessor’s Cuba policy didn’t go anywhere. He even kept in place the controversial rum & cigar policy. You can’t swim but you can smoke and drink — and bring back with you all you can carry.

Like his failure to improve healthcare, Trump’s clumsy political maneuver doesn’t address the laundry list of real issues. It’s not an improvement. Trump added bureaucracy and confusing regulation (so un-Republican) to Obama’s clever but imperfect American invasion. He rewarded Rubio and Diaz-Balart for their support in troubled times — and called it new Cuba policy.

The Trump camp insists that this document is supposed to encourage the Cuban people to take over the economy and clamor for political change, while the prohibition to do business with GAESA “boxes in” the regime. Just like magic, and because Trump says so, political prisoners will be freed, free and fair elections will be held and wealth will rise.

But it’s hardly inspiring democracy and setting an example on human rights when a president takes away from Americans their prized right to travel independently.