Taking a cruise to Cuba, an unprecedented step allowed by the Obama administration to bring Americans and Cubans closer together, ended abruptly after three years Tuesday, when the Trump administration shut down the trips to continue punishing Cuba for its support of the Venezuelan regime.
Cruise lines, the biggest of them based in Miami, scrambled to deal with the news Tuesday and figure out what it means for their passengers. One thing seemed clear: there will be no more cruises to Cuba after Tuesday if they originate or make a port stop in the U.S.
According to a new Department of Commerce rule, “private and corporate aircraft, cruise ships, sailboats, fishing boats, and other similar aircraft and vessels generally will be prohibited from going to Cuba.”
A Commerce spokesperson confirmed that as of Wednesday, “cruise ships, as well as recreational and pleasure vessels, are prohibited from departing the U.S. on temporary sojourn to Cuba.”
A senior administration official told the Miami Herald that the Cuban government “manipulated” cruise travel. Cruise companies provided “money directly to the Cuban government,” the official said, because companies have to pay docking fees to the government and the Cuban military has control of most port facilities.
The official said more sanctions were in the pipeline to increase the “cost” for the Cuban government of its support to the Maduro regime.
“I will encourage cruise companies to rebook everyone to Puerto Rico,” the official said. “It’s a U.S. territory, they need the support; or go and support one of our democratic allies in the region.”
The four largest cruise companies in the world — Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean International, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, and MSC Cruises — all based in South Florida, have ships scheduled to sail to Cuba this year. The Norwegian Sun, Norwegian Sky, Empress of the Seas, Majesty of the Seas, MSC Armonia, Carnival Sensation and Carnival Paradise are set to dock at ports in Cuba this month, some are currently on voyages that stop there.
Alyssa Goldfarb, a spokesperson for MSC Cruises, said, the company is “currently reviewing and working through the details of the Administration’s Cuba policy announcement made earlier today to assess the scale and timing of its effect on its cruise sailings from the U.S. to Cuba.”
Hugo Cancio, Norwegian’s Cuba operation representative, said the measure was “unfortunate,” adding that the cruise’s travelers usually dine and stay on board overnight, and don’t spend as much as those traveling by plane. “In terms of U.S. policy, the affected are always the Cuban people, not the government,” he added.
The other cruise companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the new restrictions.
Patricia Rogers, a spokesperson for smaller cruise line SeaDream, said the company’s interpretation of the new restrictions allows U.S. citizens to sail to Cuba with them if they book by 11:59 p.m. Tuesday because their cruises do not make stops in the U.S., leaving, for example, from ports in the Bahamas. “At this time, our 2020 Cuba Collection remains unaffected,” she said.
The announcement implements some of the new policies announced by National Security Advisor John Bolton in Miami last April. Bolton said the U.S. would limit non-family travel to Cuba and cap remittances to the island.
“The Trump administration deserves tremendous credit for holding accountable the Cuban regime,” said Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who has been advising the administration on Cuba policy.
“As the Cuban regime continues to export its destructive communist agenda throughout our hemisphere, and to directly empower the narco-terrorist Maduro regime, the United States must use all tools available under U.S. law to counter the Cuban regime’s deceitful activities to undermine U.S. policy,” Rubio said.
“The roots of the decision by the Trump Administration arises from the Obama Administration expanding who can travel to Cuba and how they arrive to Cuba so that the activity was perceived as tourism, which is illegal, “ said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Economic and Trade Council.
The Commerce Department said the new regulations were in line with “the Administration’s national security and foreign policy decision to restrict non-family travel to Cuba to prevent U.S. funds from enriching the Cuban regime, which continues to repress the Cuban people and provides ongoing support to the Maduro regime in Venezuela.”
Only cargo vessels transporting authorized items will be allowed to go to Cuba. Commercial airlines flying to the island won’t be affected by the new ruling.
Additionally, the Treasury Department is eliminating ‘people to people’ educational travel to Cuba, a category created under President Barack Obama to allow Americans to visit the island on organized thematic tours that promoted cultural exchanges between the two countries.
This change also includes a “grandfathering” provision to authorize trips when travelers had already booked a flight or a hotel before June 5.
According to official Cuban figures, more than 600,000 Americans traveled to the island in 2018, mostly on cruises.. That figure does not include another half a million Cuban Americans who visited their families on the island last year.
Critics of Obama’s engagement policies with Cuba said cruises to Cuba and ‘people to people’ travel amounted to tourism, which is forbidden by the U.S. embargo. The Trump administration has shown increasing irritation with the alleged presence of Cuban security and intelligence agents in Venezuela. Several U.S. officials have said Cuban support has been critical in maintaining Maduro, whom the U.S. no longer recognizes as the legitimate president, in power.
“The new rules on Cuba are overdue,” said John Suarez, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba. “Why should the United States allow the flow of tourist dollars to Havana while thousands of Cuban soldiers repress Venezuelans? The ‘people to people’ travel was designed to circumvent the law which bans tourism to the island.”
But organizations that have promoted those exchanges believe the administration policies will further hurt the Cuban people.
“Today’s news is especially damaging for the Cuban people, particularly the burgeoning Cuban private sector, who rely on American travelers to support their businesses and families,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba. “The Cuban people should not be used as political pawns. They are human beings. Continuing a 60-year failed embargo policy that punishes the Cuban people for the sins of their government is morally and strategically wrong.”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres