President Trump Cuts Cuba Travel, Changes Obama-Era Rules

Jun 16, 2017 | By Peter Kornbluh
President Trump Cuts Cuba Travel, Changes Obama-Era Rules

Making good on a campaign promise to Cuban-Americans in Miami to "demand" reforms in Cuba, President Trump today returned to that city to announce new restrictions on U.S. travel and trade to the island. Cigar smokers will be pleased to know that the rules regarding purchasing Cuban cigars and bringing them back to the United States remain intact—at least for now.

Speaking at a rally held at the Manuel Artime Theater in Little Havana—the stronghold of hardline opposition to engagement with Cuba—Trump denounced the historic breakthrough in relations during the Obama administration and promised to pressure the Cuban government to democratize and end human rights violations.

"With God's help," he promised the audience of Cuban-Americans that included dissidents and veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion, "a free Cuba is what we will soon achieve."

After introductions by Cuban-American Rep. Mario Diaz Balart and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the chief architects of the new restrictions, Trump signed a new Presidential Directive, curtailing both travel to, and commerce with, the island in the future.

"Effective immediately I am cancelling the last administration's completely one-sided deal with Cuba," Trump stated. "I am announcing a new policy, just as I promised during the campaign. Our policy will seek a much better deal for the Cuban people and for the United States of America," the president declared as the crowd chanted "USA, USA."

In fact, the new policy leaves much of the Obama opening intact, including the ability of travelers to buy and repatriate as many boxes of cigars, and bottles of rum, as they can carry. (That could change in the future as the Treasury Department finalizes regulations to implement the new directive.) But Trump's restrictions, which are expected to be formulated as Treasury Department regulation within the next few months, do roll back other key areas of Obama's open-door policy on travel and trade with Cuba, which are predicted to result in fewer future visitors from the United States.

Trump's recalibration of policy will most immediately affect the latitude of U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba. Under Obama's relaxation of travel regulations, U.S. citizens could designate the purpose of their travel under one of 12 specific categories, which included the broadly defined "educational" travel and "people-to-people" travel. This "self-designation" mechanism contributed to a surge in travel over the last two years, with more than 600,000 tourists visiting the island in 2016.

But Trump's new restrictions eliminate the self-designation process, and according to the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, "will end individual people-to-people travel." Unless U.S. travelers qualify for one of the specialized categories of travel—journalism, religious work or academic research, for example—they will have to travel with licensed tour groups and prove they spent all their time in Cuba doing people-to-people activities. The new directive empowers the Treasury Department to audit U.S. travelers and immigration officials will be able to demand records and journals from returning travelers to demonstrate they are in compliance with the new restrictions. Those who are not could face hefty government fines.

Under the new Trump regulations, those restrictions have been expanded to prohibit U.S. citizens from staying in, eating at, or spending any money at numerous state-owned hotels and other businesses that fall under the umbrella of Cuba's Business Enterprise Group (GAESA). GAESA, a conglomerate of economic entities controlled by the Cuban military, oversees up to 60 percent of the economic activity in Cuba. Besides hotels, GAESA controls restaurants, tourism buses and other economic and tourist-related agencies.

Trump's directive means that U.S. visitors will no longer be able to stay at some of Havana's most popular hotels, among them the elegant Saratoga favored by U.S. senators, governors and Congressional representatives who have visited Cuba over the last several years, and the Santa Isabel, where former President Jimmy Carter stayed during his two trips to the island. The five-star Gran Manzana Kempinski Havana Hotel that opened just last month also falls under the GAESA umbrella and will be off-limits to U.S. citizens. As a guide for future travelers, the State Department plans to publish a list of prohibited hotels and businesses they will now have to avoid.

The Trump directive also takes aim at any future U.S. financial and business transactions with GAESA-controlled entities—which will substantially limit U.S. commercial interests in doing business in Cuba. The new restrictions will not affect U.S. airlines and cruise ships, but could dramatically reduce future business engagement for U.S. manufacturers and hospitality industry suppliers who are seeking investment opportunities on the island.

In recent days, those business interests, along with Cuban entrepreneurs whose new private sector businesses depend on U.S. tourist traffic, have forcefully lobbied the Trump administration to further open travel and trade, rather than restrict it. Google released a statement highlighting the gains in connectivity on the island; AirBnB published a revenue report showing $40 million going to some 22,000 Cuban hosts over the last several years.

White House officials cast the new policy as a way of channeling support away from the Cuban state enterprises and into the hands of Cuban entrepreneurs. But critics of the policy pointed out that the new restrictions were likely to hurt individual Cubans, with fewer individual travelers staying in private Airbnb homes, and larger tour delegations forced to stay at state-owned hotels and using state-owned buses for transportation instead of privately owned taxis. (Not all state-owned operations are run by GAESA.) Numerous analysts in the travel industry warned that the ominous threat of Treasury Department traveler audits would have a chilling effect on future visitation to the island.

The most rousing rebuttal came from the architect of President Obama's normalization policy, former deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes, writing in The Atlantic. "Trump's announcement should be seen for what it is: not as a step forward for democracy, but as the last illogical gasp of a strain of American politics with a 50-year track record of failure; one that wrongly presumes we can control what happens in Cuba."

Peter Kornbluh writes frequently for Cigar Aficionado on Cuba. He is co-author, with William M. LeoGrande, of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.

"God help me... Can't even visit a cigar site to read about a good smoke with it getting politicized. I'm no liberal, so I hope this doesn't sound too neutral, but I think it would be nice to find at least one place where politics could be set aside I'm favor for our common love: a good cigar. " —September 15, 2017 04:09 AM
"Mr. Schmidt, You should limit your comments to facts. Have you ever been to Cuba? Have you studied Cuban history in any detail or do you just follow any bullshit someone tells you. Tell me of your personal investigations and interactions other than smoking a few cigars. No doubt the US policy toward Cuba over the past 100 years (not just the post Batista regime) has created many hardships for the average member of Cuban society. Cubans have much to be proud of. (their health care system is excellent and the fact that illiteracy is non existent for all) They are also well aware of their weaknesses. Yet they continue to hope and work toward a better society. Capitalism in Cuba started before Obama attempted to assist the movement to a more freedoms. The changes were felt immediately to the common man. It just needed a bit more time to become a strong enough force to allow grass root organic permanent change. It is misguided to go backwards in our policy when change was progressing. I know I don't have all the answers, but I do know the seeds of capitalistic change will continue to happen. Why do I know this, because I have seen the results detailed in my comments above. Btw, I am old enough to remember the embargo and I had family who lived and worked in Havana and fled Cuba like many Cubans in the late 50's. Your point about the impact of American Tourism is beyond weak. No country in the world can deliver the impact on Cuba like what I have experienced over the past six years (much of it also due to Raul's belief Cuba needed to change within) and it is strictly a function of our geographic proximity and our deeper pockets. Yes, Europeans, Chinese, Canadians and South Americans provide their support to the island, but it will never equal the impact of the US visits with more open interaction. This should not be a political football, that game proved useless by both parties since the embargo. Please impress me with your studied knowledge, your first hand experiences, your unbiased interpretations, otherwise stfu!" —July 10, 2017 02:18 AM
"Your the best trump" —June 30, 2017 17:06 PM
"Paul Sanders, You oughta know what you're talking about before you have your mother turn on your computer. "This is the GOP crassly trying to hold onto Florida by pandering to old men?" You are obviously a punk who never worked for a living. Your mommy and daddy prolly support you. Those "Old men" are Cubans who purchased land and built businesses before Castro stole them from them. With respect to blaming the GOP: JFK put the embargo in place. Neither LBJ, Jimmy Carter, nor Bill Clinton lifted it. All democrats. You hold the same ire toward them? Any jerk that would refer to the victims of Castro as simply "Old men," shouldn't be let out of the house without a nanny, a mean one at that, who would slap the shit out of you every time you say something stupid and demeaning like that." —June 27, 2017 22:44 PM
"Lloyd Gold, You are either ill informed or full of it. "Obama sparked tourism in Cuba"? Cuba has had plenty of tourism. Only US citizens couldn't visit. Look, I love "Islanders" as much as anybody. But our selfish desire for Habanos is a poor reason to ignore the fact that many Cuban-American exiles had their land and businesses stolen from them in Cuba. As far as blaming Trump, I am old enough to remember that it was JFK that placed the embargo. There have been some democrat presidents since then, LBJ, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. None of them lifted the embargo. What you got to say about them?" —June 27, 2017 22:34 PM
"I was actually in Havana the day Trump announced his changes to US/Cuba relations. As a Spanish speaker, I spoke to many everyday Cubans who after Trumps announcement just shrugged their shoulders and said life would go on as normal. Our embargo has done nothing to topple Cuban leadership. Its almost a badge of honor for Cuban people at this point to carry on happily not knowing any better. On a practical cigar related note, all the selections at the 3 LCDH I went to are limited to regular production smokes and very few Cohiba's. No Le's or Regional Ed's. I did my best shopping at duty free at Havana airport. " —June 27, 2017 17:32 PM
"Thankyou Lloyd for your response,,,I will take you up on your invitation soon,,,but heres another question,,,the cigar houses in Canada all tell me the same thing,,,that they CAN,,ship to where I live in Ga,,without any issues however,,I tried this one time and my order was stopped at the border,,not complaining,the business refunded all of my money but I hear from other cigarists that they have no trouble getting shipped into this country,,,what are your opinions on this,,is there some secret,,NOW,,this question comes from someone who has never smoked a real CUBAN and I feel I'm never going to get that chance because of the laws" —June 21, 2017 14:13 PM
"Arthur - this is a interesting point you bring up. Feel free to call my office tomorrow if you want a detailed discussion 516 705 9766" —June 20, 2017 18:07 PM
"Arthur - this is a interesting point you bring up. Feel free to call my office tomorrow if you want a detailed discussion 516 705 9766" —June 20, 2017 18:07 PM
"Here's my question,,,since there are so many Cuban cigar houses around the world and in Canada,and there are so many people doing business with these houses,,,where does the US hold with these.Are they being restricted as well or are they still open for business,,the reason I ask is because I have never done business with any of them but from what I understand they are knocking back the numbers,,,SO,,,will they also become restricted from doing business any longer." —June 20, 2017 09:56 AM
"The government is not something to condone however visiting there recently a lot the Cuban people are benefiting from tourism and their entrepreneurship in spite of their government. If this is the best they can achieve at this point I'd rather have them have something rather than decades of nothing. I think the Cubans in the U.S. have a rightful hatred of their government yet the people there still suffer with zero relief or a concrete plan to change any of it. " —June 19, 2017 08:44 AM
"The land of the free? Too bad your travel is restricted - come to Canada, well take you there!" —June 17, 2017 17:22 PM
"The land of the free? Too bad your travel is restricted - come to Canada, well take you there!" —June 17, 2017 17:22 PM
"Lloyd Gold, very well said! It is amazing how in control a person can feel when they can operate their own fruit stand on the street, and get to keep the profits." —June 17, 2017 14:56 PM
"Mr. DeRieux, if you haven't been to Cuba recently then you can have an opinion on policy but not the effect of these polices. The fact is that individuals in Cuba with no direct ties to the Cuban Government or military have benefited from the recent changes under Obama. Hard working honest entrepreneurs are everywhere. Tourism has sparked a capitalist outlook in the common person. Casa de particulars, Paladars, hawkers and flea markets. If you didn't see it in your visit then you weren't looking. I spent time in homes and businesses and see the hope that tourism has ignited. Fifty years of isolation has done nothing for the Cuban people. I do believe that the time for real change in government control would be accelerated by keeping relations open. I am not proposing anything other than allowing private sector capitalism to move the populace to expect Freedom. I do not condone the Cuban government for past abuses of which many were associates from the Soviet influence. Now many of those oppressive people are dead or retired. Times have changed and so should our approach to relations with a neighboring sovereign state. " —June 17, 2017 13:50 PM
"Timothy Hodge, do you really know the differences between China and Cuba? Cuba jails it's entrepreneurs? I am not sure what you are reading to say that, but it's incorrect. Right now US pharmaceutical companies are working overtime to bring Cuban vaccines to market here, a fantastic health benefit to our country. As much as I might like Cuban cigars and rum, I really want to see cancer and diabetes vaccines that will ease the suffering of the afflicted. Trump is not thinking of that, he's thinking what looks best for his political career. " —June 17, 2017 13:48 PM
"Do you people really not know the differences between Cuba and China? China has the second strongest (first depending on who you talk to) economy in the world while Cuba jails their entrepreneurs. The only thing they have in common is the communist label. And guess what, geniuses. The US has sanctions on China too. The embargo doesn't work. I agree. But the Obama policies did nothing to improve things for the people of Cuba. Trump's will do just that. " —June 17, 2017 12:13 PM
"Hey, Timothy Hodge, make sure you check those labels at Walmart before you buy that shirt. It is probably made by child labor in China!" —June 17, 2017 08:43 AM
"Paul Stone, we like to pick and choose our favorite dictators and oppressive regimes. Over 70% of our country supports normalized relations with Cuba. This action by Trump was unnecessary and simple minded. He's starting to piss off many who voted for him." —June 17, 2017 07:15 AM
"Cuba is an oppressive communist regime. True. Which deserves our ongoing criticism. True. And deserves to be boycotted. Maybe; but just one question: do you take the same position on The People's Republic of China? " —June 17, 2017 02:39 AM
""Pandering to Cuban men in Miami"? Marco Rubio, "the architect of the bill" who comes from a family of Cuban dissidents? Dislike Trump and GOP all you want, but the Castro regime deserves no relationship with the US. And no, we don't need to "foster and atmosphere of respect" for a state that jails political opponents and entrepreneurs (Example: Silvio Perdomo). Supporting the Castro dictatorship does not help those in Cuba, no matter how much you wish that to be true." —June 17, 2017 00:33 AM
"I have travel extensively to Cuba three times in the last five years. First time was humanitarian and the last two for pleasure. My experience of travel throughout the country has cemented my feeling that the Trump rollback of relations will only hurt those in Cuba that can least afford to lose our support. The many Cubans I met on my person to person travel were friendly hard working and generous. These individuals find happiness even in a nation of need. Crime is almost nonexistent and people treat people as brothers. I would rather see our government foster an atmosphere of respect for the citizens of Cuba (particularly the younger generations) as they will make change happen quicker than our negative stance toward an aging political Cuban government system." —June 16, 2017 20:34 PM
"I went to Cuba for Habanos Fest this year. It was amazing. I can't wait to go back, and now it will be much harder and more expensive. The embargo has done nothing to break the regime in 54 years. Nobody thinks holding onto it for another 4, or 10, or 50 is going to do a thing. This is able the GOP crassly trying to hold onto Florida by pandering to old Cuban men in Miami. Trump is a first class c@nt." —June 16, 2017 20:07 PM
"I believe La Casa del Habanos is Government owned in Cuba and franchised outside of Cuba. Would it not be logical that this would make Cuban cigars in Cuba a GAESA entity and therefore prohibited for US residents?" —June 16, 2017 19:52 PM
"It's the right thing to do. We can't let our love for their products cloud our judgement. The continued oppression of a people is not worth easy access to rum and cigars, no matter how delicious they may be. Kudos to President Trump. " —June 16, 2017 19:44 PM
"I'm not sure what you meant when you said...."This "self-designation" mechanism contributed to a surge in travel over the last two years, with more than 600,000 tourists visiting the island in 2016." Late month in looking at flights to Cuba, a number of airlines stopped service to Cuba all together and those that remained slashed the number of flights by over 50%. The reasons given by the airlines was there was little interest by Americans to visit Cuba. To my friends that did go on this trip, they said it was nice they went, but wouldn't returning any time soon. They treated it as a bucket list thing. " —June 16, 2017 18:01 PM

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