Cuba: Trump regulations a ‘serious setback’ in U.S.-Cuba relations

Josefina Vidal, director general of the U.S. division at Cuba's Foreign Ministry, speaks to reporters about the travel, commerce and financial restrictions unveiled by the Trump administration.
Josefina Vidal, director general of the U.S. division at Cuba's Foreign Ministry, speaks to reporters about the travel, commerce and financial restrictions unveiled by the Trump administration. AP

Josefina Vidal, who was Cuba’s chief negotiator in the rapprochement with the United States, says the Trump administration’s new rules on travel and trade with the island confirm the “serious setback” in U.S-Cuba relations.

“They imply a worsening of the blockade [the Cuban term for the embargo] and on the prohibition for Americans to travel to Cuba,” said Vidal during a Havana news conference.

The new regulations, which were announced Wednesday in Washington and went into effect Thursday, erode parts of the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba.

They ban Americans from any direct financial transactions with 180 entities tied to the Cuban military, and intelligence and security services. Among the listed companies — many that come under the umbrella of Cuba’s military conglomerate GAESA — were 83 hotels, marinas, tourism agencies, industries, some stores, and even a few rum and soft drinks manufacturers.

Vidal called it an “arbitrary list” of various “Cuban entities allegedly linked, on no grounds whatsoever, to the defense and national security sector.” The list, she said, “even goes as far as to include soft drinks trademarks (such as Tropicola and Cachito) and rum trademarks, and even a photography service like PhotoService.”

The new rules also tighten up restrictions on three categories of permissible travel to Cuba. Regulations regarding nine other allowed travel categories, including Cuban Americans’ family visits and humanitarian trips, remain unchanged.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the new rules, which stem from promises President Donald Trump made during a June visit to Miami, will channel economic activity away from the military and thereby encourage greater political and economic freedom for the Cuban people.

Official Cuban news outlets gave ample coverage to the new restrictions on travel and trade. CubaDebate, an official online news service, even featured a tweet by Bolivian President Evo Morales that criticized the new measures as trying to “asphyxiate” Cuba economically. “Trump must understand that the world is not his hacienda,” Morales tweeted.

Vidal said the new rules will harm the Cuban economy and both its state and private sectors.

But Vidal, the director general of the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s U.S. Department, said Cuba won’t be the only loser. The regulations, she said, will deprive the U.S. business community “of interesting business opportunities available in Cuba today, which they will lose to competition.”

Among the entities that U.S. companies can no longer strike new deals with is the Mariel Special Economic Development Zone, a sprawling complex west of Havana that is designed to attract both domestic and foreign investment. The Cubans are trying to woo high-tech companies or those that use advanced manufacturing techniques or promote sustainable development.

“This is a step back, a step sideways but the core of the relationship is still there,” said Pedro Freyre, a Miami lawyer whose clients include cruise lines and others interested in doing business with Cuba.

For clients that already have business dealings in Cuba and were grandfathered in under the new rules, Freyre said, “the rules are a needed guidance on the do’s and don’ts, but these clients are going forward in Cuba.”

For companies in the beginning stages of exploring business in Cuba, he said, “now they understand the boundaries.”

Vidal said the new regulations also impinge on Americans’ “right to travel to Cuba.”

She said the change in a category of travel called support for the Cuban people has a “subversive undertone” because it “encourages travelers to engage in certain activities to justify the legality of their visits to Cuba.”

The new regulations say that it’s not enough for U.S. travelers to buy from Cuba’s self-employed sector during their trips and they must also engage in other full-time activities that “enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities.”

“One clearly notes the political intention behind this measure,” said Vidal.