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White House has 'no target date' for new Cuba policy recommendations

U.S.-Cuba policy is under comprehensive inter-agency review, raising speculation that Trump might undo Obama's thaw in relations.
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1 Jun 2017 – 07:42 PM EDT
Donald Trump speaking to Cuban-American Bay of Pigs veterans in Miami on October 25, 2016 Crédito: Jessica Weiss/Univision

A review of U.S. Cuba policy is nearing completion but the Trump administration has yet to receive any recommendations that might roll back President Barack Obama's historic two-and-a-half year-old effort to normalize relations with the communist-run island, the White House said on Thursday.

"There is no target date by which it will be finished and presented to the President for his review so it could be this month or thereafter," a White House spokesperson told Univision.

The White House said in February that Cuba policy was under comprehensive inter-agency review, raising speculation that a major overhaul could be in the works. Not surprisingly, Cuba has since taken a back seat to other bigger domestic issues such as healthcare, tax reform and 'Russia-gate.'

"The inter-agency review of Cuba policy is ongoing but heading toward completion," the White House spokesperson said. "At this time, the President has not seen any recommendations stemming from the inter-agency review process," the spokesperson added.

Despite the frequency of White House leaks, little has emerged to indicate which way the president is leaning.

During the election campaign Trump vowed to undo Obama's policy of engagement with Cuba that has seen a massive boom in tourism between the two former Cold War enemies, including a dramatic increase in airline flights as well as cruises.

Although he fared poorly in South Florida on election day, Trump won the support of older Cuban Americans, many of whom are now hoping to see Obama's policy thrown overboard.

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Cuba thaw is popular

But public opinion appears to prefer the status quo. About three quarters of Americans support the recent thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations, according to a December poll by the Pew Research Center.

Last month a record number of 54 U.S. senators reintroduced legislation to repeal all restrictions on travel to Cuba, indicating that legislative support for U.S.-Cuba engagement is growing on Capitol Hill.

The Trump administration still faces pressure from Cuban-American lawmakers in South Florida, led by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, to return to the hard line that existed before President Barack Obama took office.

However, there may be less stomach in the administration for a more disruptive roll back of Obama's December 2014 initiative that led to the historic restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba after a lapse of 54 years. Trump himself has sounded ambivalent about Cuba, and his company has explored tourism ventures there in the past.

Part of the delay in announcing the new policy is that the Trump administration is still assembling its foreign policy team. The White House only last month appointed a new director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council, the agency leading the policy review.

Among the options that may be under consideration are tightening restrictions on U.S. firms seeking to do business with Cuban state firms linked to the all-powerful military and re-imposing stricter rules on Americans traveling there, experts say.

Cuban American hardliners in Miami would like to see specific restrictions on members of the Cuban government receiving any kind of economic benefit from U.S. business investments and loosening of financial controls.

Since Obama relaxed restrictions, U.S. companies have begun exploring business opportunities in Cuba, from hotels to telephone and internet ventures. But there has been little U.S. investment there so far, largely due to Cuba's own political system, which officially rejects capitalism.

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Tone vs substance

If there is any change in policy it's most likely to be in tone than substance, some experts say. "That's their sweet spot," said Dan Restrepo, who held the NSC post during Obama's first term. "They can look like they are being tough without doing much," he added.

Perhaps the easiest gesture Trump could make would be to formally repeal Obama's "Cuba Normalization" Policy Directive, signed Oct 14, 2016, with a simple stroke of a pen.

"It has symbolic value but it's not legally binding. It's just a document that encapsulates policy. It has no direct affect on regulations," said Restrepo. "So they could abolish the policy without really doing anything to change it."

Trump could also intensify pressure on Cuba over its human rights record, the island's most vulnerable issue. Although the number of long term political prisoners in Cuba has fallen, "short-term arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders, independent journalists, and others have increased dramatically in recent years," according to Human Rights Watch.

Touching travel would be costly for U.S. business interests. Travel giants including AirBnb, Expedia and TripAdvisor now offer services in Cuba. Rolling back expanded travel could cost airlines and cruise lines $3.5 billion and affect 10,154 jobs in those industries, according to a pro-engagement coalition of business groups, economists and leading Cuba experts who just released an economic impact analysis. Others say those numbers are wildly exaggerated.

Instead, Trump could merely toughen enforcement of existing travel restrictions to the island, which were so relaxed under Obama that it created a very loose category of licenses based on a virtual honor system.

Returning U.S. visitors could well find themselves getting a grilling from customs inspectors, said John Kavulich, a long time Cuba watcher with the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. "They may be asked for their journal and itinery to see if it meets the travel licence," he said. "They will say they are just making sure everyone is following the rules, because Obama didn't," he added.

That could also include tougher travel for so-called "people-to-people" exchanges, by requiring it to be licensed for organized group packages only, eliminating the easiest form of casual tourism by individuals, couples or informal groups of friends.

Other symbolic gestures might involve reimposing a ban on the import of Cuban rum and cigars for personal consumption by tourists. The ban had existed because those industries were confiscated from their private owners by the Cuban government.

The policy change "could just turn out to be a big show on Air Force One landing in Miami. A big picture speech, calling the Cuban government a dictatorship, and a bunch of losers," said Kavulich. "Until it comes out of his mouth, with this president you just dont know," he added.

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