William LeoGrande, an American University professor who specializes in U.S.-Cuba relations, says it appears there might be a “poison pill” in President Donald Trump’s new Cuba policy that potentially could cut off remittances to more than 1 million Cubans.
The memorandum on strengthening Cuba policy that Trump signed last week in Miami specifically states that regulatory changes shall not prohibit “sending, processing or receiving authorized remittances” — the money that’s sent to family members and friends in Cuba.
Currently remittances can be sent to almost anyone on the island — with the exception of members of the Council of Ministers, which includes the president, first vice president, seven first vice presidents, ministers and a few other top officials, and high-ranking military officials.
But the Trump memo greatly expands the definition of so-called prohibited officials.
It includes not only ministers, vice ministers and members of the Council of State and Council of Ministers but also members and employees of the National Assembly of People’s Power — Cuba’s parliament; provincial assembly members; local heads of Committees for the Defense of the Revolution; directors general, sub-directors and higher officers of all Cuban ministries and state agencies; employees of the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defense; and members and employees of Cuba’s Supreme Court.
The memo also lists secretaries and first secretaries of the Confederation of Labor of Cuba and top editors of all state-run media outlets as prohibited officials.
Such a sweeping category could potentially include a quarter of Cuba’s labor force, LeoGrande said. “It’s literally a million people if you count everyone who works for the military and GAESA that could have their remittances cut off,” he said.
GAESA (Grupo de Administración Empresarial) is a Cuban military conglomerate that controls a broad swath of the Cuban economy, including the Gaviota Tourism Group. One of the cornerstones of Trump’s new Cuba policy is channeling U.S. money and businesses away from GAESA and instead encouraging Americans and U.S. companies to develop economic ties with small private business people in Cuba.
But widening the prohibition on who can receive remittances could potentially hurt many Cuban families — those Trump has said he wants to support with his new policy, LeoGrande said. Many Cubans are dependent on money sent from friends and relatives abroad because state salaries are so low. An estimated $3 billion in remittances is sent to the island annually.
Among the questions, which may by clarified when regulations on the new Cuba policy are written, is how literally to take the definition of all employees of the Ministry of Defense.
All Cuban males must complete compulsory military service. “Does this mean an active duty private is an employee of the Ministry of Defense, and therefore a prohibited person?” asked Robert Muse, a Washington lawyer. “There still has to be more definition of what this means.”
Also in question is whether a person who is a clerk or low-level employee at an enterprise run by GAESA would be considered an employee of the Ministry of Defense.
Trying to sort out such definitions about who is eligible to receive remittances could potentially become a real headache for money transfer companies, Muse said.
In response to a query, Western Union, which has provided money transfer services to Cuba from the United States since 1999 and more recently began to handle remittances from other parts of the world to Cuba, said: “Western Union does not believe the changes are intended to impact the sending of authorized remittances to Cuba.”
Said LeoGrande: “There are a number of things that need to be clarified. The [memorandum] is so ambiguous in places.”
Cuba watchers also point to a section of Trump’s memorandum that instructs the State Department to identify “entities or sub-entities” under the control or acting on behalf of the Cuban “military, intelligence or security services or personnel” and publish a list of those with which “direct financial transactions” would disproportionately benefit them “at the expense of the Cuban people or private enterprise in Cuba.”
Some analysts have zeroed in on the word direct in the memorandum. Previous OFAC directives usually refer to direct and indirect financial transactions.
“Does this mean you can’t go and book at a Gaviota hotel, but you can give a Spanish tour company money and they can get you a room at the Saratoga?” Muse asked. (The Hotel Saratoga is operated under the umbrella of Habaguanex, which was recently transferred to the military.)
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi