MIAMI — President Trump, denouncing what he called his predecessor’s “terrible and misguided” opening to Cuba, outlined a new policy Friday that seeks to curb commercial dealings with the government in Havana and to limit the newfound freedom of U.S. citizens to travel to the island.
“Effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” Trump told an enthusiastic audience, heavily weighted with members of South Florida’s Cuban American community who opposed former president Barack Obama’s normalization of relations with the communist government of President Raúl Castro.
Away from the tribulations of Washington, where he is bombarded with questions about investigations of his administration and regularly tweets his outrage, Trump appeared buoyed by the change of subject and adulation from a crowd that chanted his name.
Speaking in a packed theater in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana, he ticked off a litany of past and present examples of Cuban government repression, and said that Obama’s easing of restrictions on travel and trade had not helped the Cuban people.
“Those days are over,” Trump said. “Now, we hold the cards.”
The details of Trump’s new policy remain unwritten. In a presidential directive he signed at the end of his speech, he ordered the Treasury and Commerce departments to draw up new regulations to replace elements of Obama’s policy changes. White House officials said that actual changes remain months away.
U.S. business leaders and a number of lawmakers — Democratic and Republican — immediately criticized the proposed reversals. In a statement issued by his office, Rep. Eric A. “Rick” Crawford (R-Ark.), whose state seeks increased access to the island’s $2 billion agricultural imports market, called Trump’s approach “failed, outdated, and isolationist.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said Trump’s reversals would “limit the possibility for positive change on the island and risk ceding growth opportunities to other countries that, frankly, may not share America’s interest in a free and democratic Cuba that respects human rights.”
But others, particularly Cuban American members of Congress, hailed the new measures. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said the Obama opening “only emboldened an oppressive dictatorship to tighten its stranglehold over its citizens” and had “led to greater repression, more arrests of political dissidents, less freedom and diminishing economic opportunity for its citizens.”
Trump was introduced at Little Havana’s Manuel Artime Theater in brief speeches by Vice President Pence, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), both of whom flew to Miami aboard Air Force One and were thanked in Trump’s speech for their policy input.
“I want to express our deep gratitude to a man that’s really become a friend of mine,” Trump said of Rubio, who ran against him in last year’s GOP presidential primary race. “He’s one tough competitor.”
The president’s remarks were laden with anti-Castro rhetoric, much of it harking back to the Cold War, and with promises not to ease pressure on Cuba until it liberates all political prisoners and holds free, democratic elections.
Those are standards Trump has not set for other repressive governments, such as Saudi Arabia, with which his administration has moved to improve relations. “We will not be silent in the face of communist oppression any longer,” said Trump, who has sought and claimed improved relations with communist governments in China and Vietnam.
He indirectly addressed those contradictions by saying that “we all accept that all nations have the right to chart their own paths, and I’m certainly a very big believer in that. So we will respect Cuban sovereignty, but we will never turn our backs on the Cuban people.”
On Friday evening, Cuba’s government issued a statement that struck a measured, relatively conciliatory tone, characterizing Trump’s moves as a “setback” in relations between the two countries.
The statement said Cuba remained willing to continue “respectful dialogue on topics of mutual concern,” but said the United States government was “in no position to be giving lectures” on human rights issues, criticizing American racial discrimination and U.S. military interventions abroad.
Cuba said it would not accede to Trump’s demands for sweeping change.
“Any strategy aimed at changing Cuba’s political, economic and social systems, whether through pressure or coercion, or employing more subtle methods, will be doomed to failure,” the statement said. The statement did not attack Trump personally, saying the president had been “poorly advised” by Cuban American “extremists.”
In Havana, as word began to trickle out that the new American president had “canceled” some of the widely popular Obama measures that brought more U.S. visitors to the island, the responses appeared overwhelmingly negative, at least in an unscientific poll of a dozen or so residents, small business owners and employees in Old Havana.
Some of the reactions were profane and unfit to be published. But a kind of collective groan went out across the neighborhood, as one of the city’s busiest tourist areas feared it would take a direct hit if fewer Americans arrived.
“We’re the ones who are going to lose,” said Anni Perez, a 21-year-old waitress at an upscale, privately owned cafe with sidewalk tables and a new espresso machine.
Trump only vaguely referred to actual policy changes, saying that “we do not want U.S. dollars to prop up a military monopoly that exploits and abuses the citizens of Cuba” and that his administration would “strictly enforce the law.”
In a fact sheet and briefings by White House officials, the administration said the new policy would prohibit any commercial transactions with Cuba’s economically powerful military, whose involvements include controlling a major portion of the tourism sector. U.S. citizens would be barred from staying in military-owned hotels, although they are free to stay in private homes or nonmilitary-owned lodgings.
Tourist travel has been prohibited for decades, but Americans were long allowed to travel in groups, licensed by the Treasury Department, for specific purposes such as education, religion, professional conferences and sports. Under the Obama changes, individual Americans could “self-declare” their compliance with the Treasury regulations and travel alone. A new category of “people to people” exchanges provided a loophole under which many Americans have visited Cuba over the past two years.
Under Trump’s proposed changes, the “people to people” category will revert to group-only travel. Although the regulations have yet to be written, senior White House officials, who were authorized to brief reporters on the condition of anonymity, said that other categories of authorized travel will remain open to individuals. The new regulations are also expected to call for stricter enforcement of Treasury’s role in auditing whether Americans are doing what they say they are doing in Cuba.
But much of the Obama policy will remain the same, including maintaining the diplomatic relations established between the two governments, the ability to use American credit cards in Cuba, U.S. airline flights and cruises to the island, and commercial ventures in areas such as communications that do not include the military.
Although Trump called on Cuba to “return . . . fugitives from American justice,” he did not announce any measures to address the handful of American fugitives who in most cases have resided in Cuba for decades. Again speaking in generalities, he said, “We will keep in place the safeguards to prevent Cubans from risking their lives to unlawful travel to the United States,” an apparent reference to Obama’s elimination of the “wet-foot, dry-foot” immigration policy that had made Cubans reaching this country automatically eligible for permanent residence and early citizenship.
Before the closing days of his presidential campaign, Trump vacillated on what he thought about Cuba. In the 1990s, he called the late Fidel Castro a “killer” and a “criminal.” But in a 2015 interview, he said the Obama thaw was “fine.”
“The concept of opening with Cuba — 50 years is enough,” he said, although “we should have made a stronger deal.”
But Trump’s views appeared to harden as the election drew near. In a Miami speech last September, he said that his administration would “stand with the Cuban people in their fight against communist oppression,” and that change under his administration would come “right away.”
“Last year, I promised to be . . . a voice for the freedom of the Cuban people,” he said in Friday’s speech. “You heard that pledge . . . and here I am,” he said.
“I guess it worked, right?” Trump said of his remarks in September 2016. “Boy. Florida, as a whole, and this community that supported us, like — by tremendous margins.”
As word of Trump’s proposals began to emerge this week, Benjamin Rhodes, a former senior Obama official who negotiated much of the thaw with Cuba, said it was important to focus on what would “not change,” including diplomatic relations, bilateral cooperation in areas such as narcotics trafficking and immigration, the elimination of the wet-foot, dry-foot policy, and some if not all of the travel expansion.
But Trump’s changes, he said, would harm Cuba’s growing private sector. In addition, he said, they could lead to a strategic problem, as Russia and China have moved to expand their military and economic cooperation with Cuba.
Cuba is about to receive its first major Russian oil shipment this century, and Moscow has pledged a $2 billion investment in the Cuban railroad. China is selling computers to the island, and Brazil has funded a state-of-the-art port in the Cuban city of Mariel.
In Latin America, which long opposed U.S. isolation of Cuba, Obama’s opening was “the most popular thing the United States has done in a generation,” Rhodes said.
A statement Friday from the Foreign Ministry in Mexico, where Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan is expected to attend a meeting of the Organization of American States next week, reiterated that country’s “friendship and solidarity with the Cuban people and its readiness to continue working with the Cuban government.”
DeYoung reported from Washington. Nick Miroff in Havana contributed to this report.