- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2017

President Trump announced a dramatic reversal Friday of the Obama administration’s Cuba policy, restoring restrictions on U.S. travel to the island and new prohibitions on financial transactions that benefit the communist regime’s military.

“We will not be silent in the face of communist oppression any longer,” Mr. Trump said in Miami. “I am moving immediately to cancel the completely one-sided deal with Cuba.”

He declared that the new policy will continue to promote prosperity for the Cuban people while cracking down on human-rights abuses by the government in Havana.

He demanded Havana release political prisoners, hold free elections and return U.S. fugitives before he would entertain further negotiations.

“We will enforce the ban on tourism. We will enforce the embargo. We will take concrete steps to make sure investments flow to the people.” he told the crowd at Miami’s Manuel Artime Theater, a landmark for Cuban exiles.

The theater, a former church, is named for Manuel Artime, who was an exile leader with Brigade 2506, the Bay of Pigs veterans’ group that endorsed Mr. Trump during the presidential race.

Mr. Trump gave a shout-out to the Bay of Pigs veterans in the crowd.

“These are amazing people,” he said.

The order signed by the president for a tougher U.S. stance toward Havana kept a campaign promise to the Cuban exile community in south Florida that provided key support in the election.

Mr. Trump said their vote for him underscored the democratic freedom denied their relatives back in Cuba.

“You went out and you voted and here I am, like I promised,” the president said. “I keep my promises. Sometime in politics they take a little bit longer, but we get there.”

He condemned what he described as Mr. Obama’s “terrible and misguided deal with the Castro regime.”

Noting the Cuban government’s abuse of its citizens and role in spreading violence and instability in the region, include in Venezuela, Mr. Trump vowed to confront it.

“My administration will not hide from it, excuse it or glamorize and never be blind to it,” said Mr. Trump.

The moves were popular among Cuban hard-liners, including Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, both Florida Republicans of Cuban descent. They both aggressively lobbied Mr. Trump in favor of rolling back the friendlier policy Mr. Obama initiated in 2015.

Mr. Rubio and Mr. Diaz-Balart, as well as Rep. Carlos Curbelo, another Florida Republican of Cuban descent, flew with Mr. Trump on Air Force One to Miami.

In a speech at the Miami event, Mr. Rubio recalled Mr. Obama’s historic visit to Havana in 2016.

“A year and a half ago, an American president landed in Havana to outstretch his hand to the regime. Today, a new president lands in Miami to reach out his hand to the people of Cuba,” Mr. Rubio said.

He stressed that the new policy was about empowering Cuban people.

“Many will characterize this as an effort to punish the Cuban regime,” he said. “And it will punish the Cuban military that oppresses its people and helps [Venezuela President Nicolas] Maduro oppress their people in Venezuela. But more than anything else, this change empowers the people of Cuba, not the government, not the regime, but the people so they can enjoy the freedom and liberty.”

The new policy doesn’t affect the broader U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, which can only be lifted by an act of Congress.

The re-hardening of relations with Cuba, however, was decried by pro-normalization Democrats and Republicans.

They said restrictions and sanctions harm the Cuban people while consolidating power of the totalitarian government in Havana.

“This is a hollow retreat from normalization that takes a swipe at Americans’ freedom to travel, at our national interest, and at the people of Cuba who yearn to reconnect with us — all just to score a political favor with a small and dwindling faction here at home,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican and frequent Trump critic, called for an end to the embargo.

“Any policy change that diminishes the ability of Americans to travel freely to Cuba is not in the best interests of the United States or the Cuban people,” he said. “It is time Senate leadership finally allowed a vote on my bipartisan bill to fully lift these archaic restrictions which do not exist for travel by Americans to any other country in the world. The bill has 55 total cosponsors and I am convinced it would pass the Senate with upwards of 70 votes.”

The renewed travel restriction targets at individual “people-to-people” visits to Cuba, which Trump officials believe is being abused to evade the longstanding U.S. ban on tourism in Cuba. Americans will still be able to visit Cuba as part of large groups with cultural or other itineraries approved by the Treasury Department.

Cruise ships and commercial flights from the U.S. to Cuba won’t be prevented, according to the administration, but people wanting to visit the island likely will have more red tape to navigate.

Mr. Trump also is tightening restrictions on financial transactions that benefit the Cuban military, which has tendrils reaching throughout the economy to bars, restaurants, hotels, stores and markets.

The policy does not close the U.S. embassy Mr. Obama opened in Havana.

The changes will not go into into effect until the Treasury and Commerce Department promulgate new regulations that conform with the new policy.

Mr. Trump doesn’t completely reverse closer ties to Cuba.

The U.S. embassy that Mr. Obama opened in Havana will remain.

Mr. Trump also chose not reinstate the “wet-foot-dry-foot” policy that Mr. Obama ended. Before that, Cubans who made it to the U.S. shore were given special treatment and immediately granted visas. Now they are treated the same as other refugees.

“The ending of that policy is a good thing for not only the people who end up being in harms way but for our border security,” said a senior administration official.

Despite tighter restriction on financial transactions, the president attempted to safeguard existing business deals in Cuba, such as the Starwood Hotels deal to manage a historic Havana hotel.

Furthermore, the Trump administration does not plan to restore limits on Cuban rum and cigars that Americans can bring home for personal use, according to a Reuters report.

The carve-out left room for some support from advocates for normalized relations with Cuba.

• S.A. Miller can be reached at smiller@washingtontimes.com.

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