Trump tightens U.S. travel to Cuba, CT lawmakers decry changes

LARRY LUXNER

Panoramic view of Havana taken from the top of the Focsa building in Vedado, with the venerable Hotel Nacional in the foreground.

Washington – In announcing a new policy change toward Havana, President Donald Trump on Friday said “I’m cancelling Obama’s one-sided deal with Havana.”

He did not.

Instead, he took steps to limit what he considers illegal U.S. tourism to the island and to stem the flow of U.S. dollars to the Cuban military, but left much of  former President Obama’s initiatives toward Cuba intact.

In a fiery speech in Miami, Trump said he is ordering federal agencies to write new rules barring “self-directed educational travel” or unrestricted travel by individual Americans.

“We will enforce the [embargo’s] ban on tourism,” the president said

But Americans will still be able to travel to Cuba as part of an educational or cultural group or if they are Cuban-American or belong to other categories of Americans – including amateur athletes, public officials and journalists — who can travel freely to the island nation.

There’s another proposed change: no longer will Americans be able to stay in hotels, dine at restaurants or take tours run by the  Cuban military, which is in charge of much of Cuba’s tourism sector.

That means Americans would be able to continue to stay at iconic Havana hotels like the Nacional or the Habana Libre, which are controlled by other state-run companies, but not at the 29 other hotels in Havana run by Grupo Gaviota, a company controlled by the Cuban military.

Other Obama administration’s openings to Cuba are intact, including the normalization of relations, the unlimited flow of remittances to Cuba and the ability of U.S. travelers to bring back rum and cigars.

Larry Luxner

Foreign tourists enjoy the colonial architecture of Old Havana.

“You can’t get the genie back into the bottle,” a White House official said at a background briefing Thursday.

Still, proponents of better U.S.-Cuba relations decried the policy changes, which were accompanied by harsh rhetoric by Trump, who said “we will not be silent in the face of Communist oppression.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, joined a group of Democratic senators urging the U.S. Department of State to maintain economic and political engagement with Cuba.

Murphy said upholding normalized relations with Cuba provides key economic and national security benefits to Connecticut —  which the U.S. census says is home to about 10,500 Cuban-Americans — and to the United States.

“We have already started to see the benefits of a new approach with Cuba,” a  letter from the senators to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said. “American travel and hotel companies are taking advantage of their ability to get licenses to work in Cuba.” the letter said. “American airline companies are flying direct commercial routes between the U.S. and Cuba, and for the first time in decades an American cruise ship docked in Havana.”

The senators said that in 2016, tourism to Cuba set a record, increasing by nearly 14 percent.

“In order for American businesses to benefit from this growth, they have to be able to do business in Cuba,” the senators wrote.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, who has visited Cuba several times, said “rolling back the progress we have already made toward normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations is the wrong path forward for both countries.”

“American interests are best served by meaningful engagement with Cuba, and the president’s proposals are harmful to American businesses and U.S. leadership in the region,” she said. “ We cannot go back to the failed Cold War policies that restrict travel, undermine American values, and suppress economic growth in both nations.”

Some Republicans also decried Trump’s announcement.

Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., tweeted “@POTUS‘s Cuba policy is not about human rights or security. If it were, then why is he dancing with the Saudis and selling them weapons?”

One company likely to be affected by the proposed change in policy is Starwood Hotels, which was acquired by Marriott last fall but still has a sizable presence in Stamford.

Starwood and Marriott obtained special licenses from the Obama administration to renovate and run several hotels in Havana under contracts with Gaviota.  The licenses expire in March of 2018 and may not be renewed.

“We continue to believe that increased travel between the United States and Cuba would serve to strengthen an evolving bilateral relationship, and Marriott remains ready to build on the progress that has been made in the last two years,” Marriott said in a statement. “We have invested significant resources establishing a presence in Cuba, and with one hotel open and another in the pipeline, we have just begun our work creating opportunity and a more vibrant tourism sector on the island.”

The hotelier also said “we  will continue to urge the Trump administration and Congress to recognize and utilize travel as a strategic tool in efforts to improve relations with Cuba, allowing us to be part of a promising future, as opposed to reverting to the policies of the past.”

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