As a candidate, Donald Trump promised to undo parts of a historic U.S.-Cuba agreement to re-engage after more than 50 years. He said the 2014 deal forged by Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro was “one-sided,” favoring the communist government.
Now that he occupies the White House, Trump is expected to set new demands for Havana – likely on a visit to Miami planned for Friday.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated Tuesday that the Trump administration plans to restore “pressure on the regime” by tightening some of the trade and travel loosened under Obama.
Speaking at a Senate hearing on his department’s proposed budget, Tillerson said “the general approach … is to allow as much of this continued commercial and engagement activity to go on as possible.”
Tillerson noted benefits to Cuba’s 11 million residents, with some capitalizing on U.S. business investments and a tripling of U.S. visitors to the island last year. That came after the United States in 2015 removed Cuba from the list of terrorist sponsors, reopened its embassy in Havana, and eased restrictions on trade and travel.
Nonetheless, Tillerson said, “We think we have achieved very little in terms of changing the behavior of the regime in Cuba and its treatment of people, and it has little incentive today to change that.”
Likely revisions could include prohibiting American companies from doing business with Cuban enterprises linked to the military – which controls much of the communist-run island’s economy – and restricting Americans’ travel to Cuba, sources familiar with the policy review said.
The administration’s demands for Havana also could include broader internet access and the release of prisoners, the Associated Press reported.
Obama relaxed the Cuban economic embargo through executive orders, which Trump can easily reverse. Only Congress can formally rescind the embargo enacted in 1962.
Pushing tougher conditions
Two Cuban-American Republican lawmakers from Florida – home to a large Cuban-American exile community – are pressing for harsher terms with Havana: Senator Marco Rubio serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating Russian involvement in the 2016 election; Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart serves on the House Appropriations Committee. Both are expected to join the president in Miami for his announcement.
“We’ve been walking through all these issues with the president and his team,” Rubio told El Nuevo Herald in April. “… I am confident that President Trump will treat Cuba like the dictatorship it is and that our policy going forward will reflect the fact that it is not in the national interest of the United States for us to be doing business with the Cuban military.”
Diaz-Balart told VOA earlier this month that he has had “several conversations” with the president, who “wants to enforce respect for human rights, the security of the country and certainly also the rule of law.”
The congressman purportedly backed House Republicans’ legislation on health care in March in exchange for Trump’s tougher stance on Cuba, The New York Times and other news media have reported. The congressman’s office did not respond to VOA’s phone and email requests for comment.
U.S. Senator Bob Corker, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he understood arguments for and against stronger ties with Cuba. Interviewed last week by VOA, he described himself as “someone who would like to see progress there.”
Corker mentioned a visit last year to the island, where “about 25 percent of the country now is engaged in some kind of private-sector activity, which is certainly growth.”
He also acknowledged frustration with Cuban officials he’d met: “If they would just be willing to show some evolution, you know, a momentum could be gained. But it’s almost as if because America wants them to go in that direction, they’re going to defy.”
Most Republicans endorse Cuba trade and travel, which has strong bipartisan support in Congress and with the public overall. Last week, seven GOP lawmakers wrote a letter to the president, warning that restrictions would “further incentivize Cuba to depend on countries like Russia and China,” Reuters news service reported.
A new poll conducted on behalf of Engage Cuba, a nonpartisan coalition favoring broader commercial and diplomatic relations with the island, showed almost 64 percent of Republicans want to continue the rapprochement with Cuba. Earlier this month, Engage Cuba released a study estimating that rolling back trade and travel measures could cost the United States more than $6 billion and would eliminate 12,000 jobs in Trump’s first term.
U.S. airlines, Airbnb and other travel-related interests also have urged the Trump administration government not to reverse the new openness. Tech giant Google joined the chorus on Monday, with Google Cuba official Brett Perlmutter publicly appealing to maintain a U.S. policy “that allows telecommunications firms [to] work in Cuba,” the Associated Press reported.
Google servers went online in Cuba in April, enabling quicker and potentially cheaper communication.
International Telecommunication Union data show that just 37 percent of Cubans routinely used the internet as of 2015 – but that the user base was growing rapidly.
Dissidents discuss human rights
The biggest sticking point is Cuba’s poor record on human rights.
The international watchdog group Human Rights Watch, in its most recent annual update, said, “The Cuban government continues to repress dissent and punish public criticism,” using beatings and job termination to try to silence its critics.
Dissidents in Cuba have differing views on the renewed ties’ impact.
Rapprochement has brought the island “an increase of repression, of death threats to the opposition and to the Cuban people,” psychologist and journalist Guillermo Fariñas said he told Obama in the second of their two meetings. Fariñas, who has conducted more than 20 hunger strikes to protest the regime’s actions, told VOA that “negotiating with the Cuban government and asking them nothing in return was a mistake.”
“Alleged improvements, like the implementation of Wi-Fi zones on the island, have only served to enrich the monopoly the military has over the country’s economy,” Fariñas added. He said the state-owned telecommunications company ETECSA controls “all communications inside and outside the country” and is run by the military.
Reinaldo Escobar, editor of the independent digital news outlet 14ymedio, told VOA more openness is “very positive for Cuba,” because it improves contact between Cubans and their relatives and friends in the U.S., and because it reduces diplomatic “threats, retaliation and misunderstandings.”
But he said economic benefits “haven’t really reached” most Cubans.
VOA Spanish Branch reporter Gioconda Tapia Reynolds,Gesell Tobias, Jesenia DeMoya-C., Capitol Hill corresondent Michael Bowman, and reporter Carol Guensburg contributed to this report.