Donald Trump announces new Cuba restrictions: 'We will not be silenced in the face of communist oppression'

The President calls Barack Obama's policy toward Cuba 'completely one sided', but will keep commercial flights and diplomatic relations open

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The Independent US

President Donald Trump has announced that his administration will be tightening regulations on Cuba in order to help the Cuban people, calling former President Barack Obama's deal to thaw relations with the country's government "terrible".

"We will not be silenced in the face of communist oppression any longer", Mr Trump said in front of an excited crowd in the Little Havana neighbourhood of Miami, Florida.

The President pledged to help the people of Cuba, and to ensure that American money spent in Cuba will go to the Cuban people instead of the Cuban government. He characterised the administration of Raul Castro as a "brutal, brutal regime", and spoke with a flourish describing the brutal crackdown and imprisonment of religious worshippers in the island country.

"Effective immediately, I am cancelling the last Administration's completely one sided deal with Cuba", Mr Trump said.

Mr Trump also described Cuba as a major security threat to the United States, saying that the country had shipped weapons to North Korea while allowing "cop killers" to seek refuge within its borders.

The “cop killer” Mr Trump was referring to is Joanne Chesimard, a former Black Panther who fled to Cuba in 1984 after escaping from a New Jersey prison, where she was serving a life sentence for murdering a state trooper.

Before signing the Cuba policy rollback, Mr Trump brought several Cuban dissidents onto the stage and allowed some of them to speak. One played the Star Spangled Banner on a violin as the president and crowd saluted or placed their hands over their hearts.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a one-time political foe who engaged in a heated primary run against the President last year for the Republican nomination, praised the President’s efforts to reform policy toward Cuba before he took the stage. Mr Rubio flew down to Miami with the President on Air Force One, and is said to have played a leading role in advising the White House on the new policies. Mr Rubio, a Cuban American, riled up the crowd with anti-communist rhetoric in both English and Spanish.

But, in a sense Mr Trump's policy changes are more rhetoric than action few immediate changes, and they are not intended to completely end the diplomatic relationship that former President Barack Obama established. That thaw was aimed at bringing to a close five decades of hostility.

Instead, Mr Trump has instructed his government to begin reviewing how they might change policy in order to meet the administration’s goals. Those policy reviews will focus on how to best eliminate individual travel to Cuba that the White House says is being abused (technically tourism to Cuba is not currently legal for Americans), and on how to ensure that American money spent in Cuba or on Cuban goods gets into the hands of the Cuban people and not the government. American investment in Cuba is likely to see more restrictions than what is already in place.

The new policies won’t change family travel allowances, and will leave other forms of travel to Cuba open, including trips for journalistic purposes. The new policies won’t affect the current wet foot dry foot policy that seeks to shelter Cubans who land on American soil seeking refuge.

Commercial flights will not be stopped from servicing Havana, nor will cruise lines. The administration, according to one White House official, has no intention of "disrupting"€ existing business ventures such as one struck under Mr Obama by Starwood Hotels Inc, which is owned by Marriott International Inc, to manage a historic Havana hotel.

Nor does Trump plan to reinstate limits that Mr Obama lifted on the amount of the island's coveted rum and cigars that Americans can bring home for personal use.

But, Mr Trump has long promised to pull back on his predecessor’s landmark Cuba policy changes, and secured the first endorsement in decades from the Bay of Pigs Veteran Association in Miami thanks to that policy. Senior White House officials said during a conference call before the President’s announcement that his promise to the group to hold the Cuban government accountable was a major factor in his decision in February to instruct his staff to begin reviewing the policy.

Critics of the President's decision, however, note that the US has a relatively friendly relationship with other countries with poor civil rights records, including Saudi Arabia, where Mr Trump travelled to during his first foreign trip in office in May.

Mr Obama’s 2015 announcement that travel restrictions to Cuba would be loosened resulted in a flash of excitement from Americans who were eager to travel to Havana to get a glimpse of a country that sits just 100 miles off the coast of Florida, but has been behind a veil for American tourists. Since then, however, interest in travelling to the country has waned somewhat in the US, with roughly 76 per cent of Americans saying they aren’t planning on a trip there this year compared to 70 per cent last year.

Trump aides say Mr Obama'€™s efforts amounted to “appeasement” and have done nothing to advance political freedoms in Cuba, while benefiting the Cuban government financially.

“It's hard to think of a policy that makes less sense than the prior administration's terrible and misguided deal with the Castro regime,” Mr Trump said in Miami, citing the lack of human rights concessions from Cuba in the detente negotiated by Mr Obama.

Critics say that Mr Trump’s plans won’t actually push the Cuban government to strive for better human rights record, and will likely hurt the Cuban people. That’s because many Cubans are self employed in retail and other services that serve tourists. 

Sarah Stephens, an expert on US-Cuba policy who works to secure diplomatic changes like the ones made by the Obama administration, told The Independent that the lack of substance in Mr Trump’s changes doesn’t amount to substantial policy, and is instead a political ploy to secure conservative Cuban votes in Florida.

“This is not a serious policy. This is a policy that has no achievable goal, it imagines no process, and it offers no end game”, she said. “By choosing to make the announcement before the diehards in Miami, the White House isn’t even looking for window dressing, but admitting that this is simply about their game of politics.”

Still, it will be the latest attempt by Mr Trump to overturn parts of Mr Obama's presidential legacy. He has already pulled the United States out of a major international climate treaty and is trying to scrap his predecessor's landmark healthcare program.

International human rights groups say that renewed US efforts to isolate the island could worsen the situation by empowering Cuban hard-liners. The Cuban government has made clear it will not be pressured into reforms in exchange for engagement.

The Cuban government had no immediate comment, but ordinary Cubans said they were crestfallen to be returning to an era of frostier relations with the United States with potential economic fallout for them.

“It's going to really hurt me because the majority of my clients are from the United States,” Enrique Montoto, 61, who rents rooms on US online home-rental marketplace Airbnb, told Reuters. Airbnb expanded into Cuba in 2015.

"€œI have trust in Trump to do the right thing when it comes to Cuba, Jorge Saurez, 66, a retired physician, said in Little Havana. “That's why I voted for him.”

Mexico has urged the governments of the United States and Cuba to find points of agreement and resolve their differences “via dialogue.”

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez, whose government is a close ally to Cuba, tweeted that his country has "undeniable solidarity with our sister republic Cuba against the aggressions of @realDonaldTrump".

At least one of Mr Trump's fellow Republicans has pushed back against isolating Cuba. Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, one of the most vocal advocates for easing rules for American companies looking to make deals in Cuba, called for a vote on legislation to lift restrictions on American travel to the island nation. It is unlikely that other Republicans in the Senate will allow that vote to happen, and has repeatedly blocked that move.

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