The Trump administration today announced new regulations to severely restrict the ability of U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, taking another major step in rolling back the Obama-era effort to open the door to better relations.
In a press release, the Treasury Department stated that it was “amending the regulations to remove the authorization for group people-to-people educational travel,” eliminating one of the most popular ways hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens have traveled to the island since President Obama restored direct commercial air services in 2016.
The Treasury Department also stated that it would terminate Obama-era authorizations allowing private and corporate aircraft to fly to Cuba, as well as recreational and “passenger boats”—a reference to the cruise ships that now make frequent stops in various Cuban ports. New Commerce Department regulations posted today stated that “private and corporate aircraft, cruise ships, sailboats, fishing boats, and other similar aircraft and vessels generally will be prohibited from going to Cuba."
Such travel would now require specific licenses, but the Treasury Department stated that it would “establish a general policy of denial for license applications involving those vessels and aircraft.”
More than 630,000 U.S. citizens—not counting Cuban-Americans who are allowed to visit Cuba without restrictions to see relatives—traveled to the island last year, the majority of them on cruise ships. Thousands of others traveled to Cuba on educational group tours.
“This administration has made a strategic decision to reverse the loosening of sanctions and other restrictions on the Cuban regime,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, referring to the historic opening in relations during the Obama administration. Using language reminiscent of the Cold War, Mnuchin specifically blamed what he called Cuba’s “destabilizing role in the Western Hemisphere.”
In a companion statement, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also attacked the Obama policy of positive engagement. “Cuba remains communist, and the United States, under the previous administration, made too many concessions to one of our historically most aggressive adversaries,” he said.
Advocates of free travel to Cuba and supporters for Cuba’s growing private sector decried the new restrictions. “Restricting Americans freedom to travel is an attack on our fundamental right as citizens,” stated James Williams, director of Engage Cuba, a pro-normalization advocacy group. “The federal government should not be policing where Americans go on vacation.”
Martha Honey, who directs the Center for Responsible Travel, also pointed out that returning to the policies of trying to isolate Cuba through the trade embargo and travel ban only served to hurt the Cuban people. “This major policy change barring many American travelers from visiting the island will make life much more difficult for average Cubans and will be deeply felt by Cuba’s burgeoning private sector—the very entrepreneurs that the Trump administration claims to support.”
Since President Obama loosened travel restrictions to the island and restored commercial air services, the Cuban private sector has expanded considerably, fueled by educational tourists who frequent private restaurants known as paladares, stay in private homes and hire the ubiquitous old cars and their drivers to see the sites. Hundreds of Cuban entrepreneurs who invested in opening businesses catering to U.S. clientele now stand to lose their livelihoods and economic independence from the state sector.
The Treasury Department press release stated that the new travel restrictions would take effect tomorrow. Certain tours that were organized before that date could proceed, according to the new regulations, but no new tours would be authorized after that date.
It remained unclear, however, when the ban on cruise ship travel to Cuba would be implemented.