- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Trump administration is cracking down harder on travel to Cuba, this time banning group trips by cruise ship, yacht and corporate plane as Washington seeks to starve the communist island of U.S. tourist dollars.

The move Tuesday — which will affect tens of thousands of Americans who take the trips each year — was the latest in an extraordinary foreign policy reversal ushered in by President Trump, systematically rolling back the diplomatic outreach pursued by the Obama administration after more than five decades of near-frozen bilateral ties.

In justifying the policy, Treasury and State Department officials cited Havana’s repressive government and continued financial backing of U.S. adversaries such as socialist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Investment and tourist dollars spent in Cuba are routinely funneled to dictators and used to aid regimes hostile to Washington, U.S. officials contend.

“Cuba continues to play a destabilizing role in the Western Hemisphere, providing a communist foothold in the region and propping up U.S. adversaries in places like Venezuela and Nicaragua by fomenting instability, undermining the rule of law and suppressing democratic processes,” Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said in a statement. “This administration has made a strategic decision to reverse the loosening of sanctions and other restrictions on the Cuban regime. These actions will help to keep U.S. dollars out of the hands of Cuban military, intelligence, and security services.”

The Obama administration in 2014 eliminated some restrictions on travel to Cuba as part of a broader effort to reestablish ties with the country. Two years later, Mr. Obama led a large delegation to the island and even took in a local baseball game alongside then-Cuban President Raul Castro.

In 2017, Mr. Trump reimposed a ban on individual tourist visits. The latest crackdown targets “group people-to-people” visits. The State Department specifically singled out “visits to Cuba via passenger and recreational vessels, including cruise ships and yachts, and private and corporate aircraft.”

American journalists, students or those visiting family on the island do not appear to be affected by the policy.

Although the administration’s goal is to starve the Cuban government of funds, regional analysts say private business owners enjoying an increase in commerce from American visitors will feel the brunt.

“I think this is going to have a significant impact on the Cuban economy,” said William LeoGrande, a professor of government and a specialist in U.S.-Cuban relations at American University. “The biggest impact will fall on the Cuban private sector. The reason is because American travelers are more likely to stay at privately owned bed-and-breakfasts, hire private drivers and private tour guides.”

Over the past five years, Americans have become the second-largest foreign group visiting the island behind Canadians, Cuban government figures show.

Most of the visits are set up through organized tour groups such as cruise lines that streamline the process for Americans.

Spike in bookings

The administration first hinted that it would crack down on such trips in April when White House National Security Adviser John R. Bolton said the U.S. would seek “further regulatory changes to restrict non-family travel to Cuba.”

Those comments led to an 18% spike in bookings to Cuba within a week, TravelWeekly.com reported, citing figures from InsightCuba. The website suggested that Americans were eager to secure cruises, yacht trips and other visits before the crackdown. Treasury included a “grandfathering” provision allowing trips that were booked before Tuesday to proceed as scheduled.

Supporters of the crackdown say it was necessary to close what had become a major loophole in U.S. travel policy toward Cuba.

Even after the Obama administration’s 2014 easing of relations, travel to Cuba was supposed to be restricted largely to academic research and educational trips, but some lawmakers said the lines had been blurred beyond recognition.

“Cruises, tour groups, and other people-to-people travel seemed often to cross the line into unlawful tourism. By ending people-to-people travel, there are likely to be fewer abuses and therefore fewer resources to reach the regime, which runs much of Cuba’s tourism industry,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican and longtime critic of the Cuban regime.

Critics of the crackdown counter that the White House is taking the nation backward by targeting Americans’ travel plans as a way to achieve geopolitical goals.

“Restricting Americans’ freedom to travel is an attack on our fundamental right as citizens. The federal government should not be policing where Americans go on vacation. Our core freedoms should not be held hostage by politicians for naked partisanship,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a coalition of private companies advocating the end of travel bans to Cuba.

“Continuing a 60-year failed embargo policy that punishes the Cuban people for the sins of their government is morally and strategically wrong. U.S. policy should be about empowering the Cuban people and advancing American interests,” he said.

Travel agents specializing in Cuba travel predicted rough seas ahead.

“There’s always been restrictions on Cuba, so this is nothing new, but with Trump and his administration just everything is ridiculously stupid,” said Lida Behnam, whose Alexandria, Virginia-based Lida Travel Inc. has made travel to Cuba a specialty for more than two decades.

“Every step that Trump and his administration have taken is to make harsh restrictions,” Ms. Behnam said. “It’s going to affect their tourism and economy. It’s affecting everything.”

The administration this year also reversed a long-standing U.S. policy and allowed companies using property seized after the Cuban revolution in 1959 to be sued. Carnival Cruise Line, with headquarters in Miami, was the first American company to face lawsuits under the policy for its use of Cuban boat docks.

• Maggie Garred contributed to this report.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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