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In a move that's being described by some in the travel industry as catering to southern Florida's hard-liners in advance of the 2020 presidential elections, the Trump administration has announced harsh new Cuba sanctions and travel policy changes.
The administration is largely reversing Obama-era engagement policies toward the Caribbean island nation, while also describing its latest actions as an attempt to increase pressure on Cuba's government in response to its support of the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela.
An official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told the Miami Herald that travel to Cuba will now be limited to family visits, restricting those visits to the island deemed as "veiled tourism."
That could have sweeping effects on travel to the island, which has blossomed since President Obama's administration.
By some accounts, Trump's new stance could mean the end of cruises that started to operate during the Obama years as part of the expansion of the types of travel allowed, the Miami Herald reported.
The re-tightened restrictions could also impact air travel, reducing the numbers of passengers headed to the island. Travel by Cuban Americans to reunite with relatives on the island will remain unchanged.
The just announced changes also include new limits on remittances made to Cubans from family members in the United States. They will be slashed from the unlimited remittances allowed by Obama to just $1,000 per person every three months.
Many of the measures were announced by National Security Advisor John Bolton during a speech at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables Wednesday afternoon.
The crackdown also includes the full implementation of the Helms-Burton law, which will allow lawsuits in U.S. courts against American and foreign companies doing business in Cuba over the use of property nationalized by the Cuban government following the 1959 revolution.
Aside from its goal of reversing changes put in place by the Obama administration, the new Trump policies on Cuba are being described as an attempt to show the Cuban government that "its support for Maduro will cost it," according to the official who spoke to the Miami Herald on the condition of anonymity.
Travel industry reaction to the news varied from disappointment to anger, to concern about the future for both the island's nascent tourism industry and also for companies in this country that have benefitted from open relations with Cuba.
"President Trump is doing this for one reason, and one reason only: to appease fringe hardliners in South Florida ahead of the 2020 election," said James Williams, President of Engage Cuba, a coalition of private companies and organizations that have been working to end the travel and trade embargo on Cuba.
"The hypocrisy of the Trump administration cozying up to the most brutal dictatorships in the world in Saudi Arabia, Russia, and North Korea, but claiming to care about democracy and human rights in Cuba, is like living in a parallel universe," Williams added. "President Trump himself tried for years to open up a Trump Hotel and golf resort in Cuba."
U.S. travel and remittances are the lifeblood of private sector entrepreneurs in Cuba, Williams added, who called the restrictions "a cruel betrayal and a knife in the back of Cuban civil society" and the prospects for a growing independent private sector in Cuba.
"The Cuban people are already struggling under tremendous difficulties, and these actions only make it worse," Williams said. "We need a policy that focuses on empowering the Cuban people and advancing American interests, not continuing a 60-year failed policy that only serves fringe domestic politics in South Florida."
Williams added that the new limit on U.S. remittances to the island will be a heavy blow to Cuba's nascent private sector (roughly one-third of the workforce) which greatly depends on remittances and U.S. travelers to keep their small businesses alive.
Andrea Holbrook, president of Florida-based Holbrook Travel, which has been providing trips to the island since 2000, expressed disappointment and concern about Trump's latest announcement.
"We are very worried about what this means," Holbrook told TravelPulse. "We are really disappointed by the attitude of our lawmakers who don't see the tremendous economic opportunity that the opening of Cuba represents."
Gainesville-based Holbrook Travel employs about 40 people, 30 of them locally. In 2017 the company suffered a disappointing year due in large part to all of the confusion caused by the Trump administration's initial policy announcements tied to Cuba.
"This is certainly something we are disappointed to see happen. It means jobs, income, economic development. Here in Gainesville, Florida. Our opportunity to grow what we do in Cuba means growth in Gainesville," said Holbrook.
She also expressed concern about the full implementation of the Helms-Burton law and the lawsuits that might stem from that change, which will be aimed at foreign companies doing business in Cuba.
"The majority of investment in hotels is coming from Canadian and other foreign sources. This will expose those companies to foreign lawsuits," said Holbrook. "It's obviously an attempt to strangle foreign investment in Cuba. That's a big concern in the long term and possibly the short term. I can imagine it being potentially titanic in terms of impact."
Martha Honey, the executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), expressed similar dismay over the news.
"This sweeping suite of hardline policies will make life more difficult for average Cubans, including those involved in Cuba's private tourism sector, which has burgeoned in the wake of the Obama-Raul Castro accords that opened Cuba to US travelers," Honey told TravelPulse.
"Today's announcement appears intended to strangle US citizens from visiting Cuba, except for family reasons. While the details are still not fully known, the announcement may bar US citizens from visiting one of our nearest neighbors, a country that is widely viewed as one of the safest and most peaceful in the world. Here in Havana, we are deeply saddened by this back to the future announcement based on 50 years of failed US policies."
Mia Taylor is an award-winning journalist who has two decades of experience. Most recently she worked as a staff writer for...
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