Authors: Megan Pynes, Mavis Anderson
Following 54 years of aggression, marked by a ceaseless embargo, a monumental decision was made on December 17, 2014 between the United States and Cuba to announce the establishment of diplomatic ties. Now, three years after this milestone was reached and the embassies were reopened, Americans and Cubans watch as this newfound relationship is tested and tried by the current administration.
Since Trump’s June 16 National Security Presidential Memorandum (NSPM) on Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba, which he announced would “cancel” the deals made by the Obama Administration, a great deal has changed for U.S.-Cuban relations. In addition to continuing to implement the embargo, promises made by NSPM include ending individual people-to-people travel and, in an attempt to keep money from the Cuban government, banning U.S. corporations and citizens from doing business with the Armed Forces Business Enterprises Group (GAESA). Although Trump announced the rollback would be “effective immediately,” the arrangements did not go into effect until November 9 when regulatory amendments were finally issued by the U.S. Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets (OFAC), Department of Commerce, and Department of State. In the months leading up to this recent implementation, however, a great deal more has changed for U.S.-Cuban relations.
What We Weren’t Expecting
On October 3 the State Department expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from their embassy in Washington, D.C., just days after withdrawing 60 percent of American staff from the U.S. Embassy in Havana. In addition, the U.S. Embassy has stopped issuing visas to Cubans, refusing to refund deposits from previously submitted applications, and issued a travel warning for Americans planning to go to Cuba.
These recent events come in response to the supposed ‘sonic attacks’ experienced by 24 U.S. diplomats living in Cuba. While Trump chose to place the blame on Cuba, his accusation directly contradicts the State Department’s repeated statements that it does not yet know who or what caused the mysterious incidents. Both President Raúl Castro and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla have strongly denied any involvement of their government and have made clear their willingness to work closely with the United States in the investigation. Could this dramatization of recent events work to simplify Trump’s efforts to achieve his campaign promise to rollback Obama-era efforts normalizing relations with Cuba? His eagerness to place the blame on Cuba’s government without the support of the State Department, and without an ounce of evidence, makes this jump seem plausible.
In addition to making maintaining diplomatic relations more difficult, the downsizing of both embassies slows tasks dramatically and leaves their effectiveness extremely hardhit. The decision to stop issuing visas to Cubans is unacceptable and works to keep families separated by national lines. The option presented by the U.S. government in wake of this decision is for Cubans to travel to Colombia in order to apply for a visa; this is implausible for most Cubans.
Furthermore, the issuing of a travel warning jeopardizes the Cuban economy and livelihood of many. It should be noted, however, that the travel warning is merely that, a warning. Some Canadian officials have suffered from the same incidents as American diplomats, but their government has refrained from withdrawing personnel and retaliating against Cuban diplomats in Canada, and has not issued a travel warning, as they believe there is no threat to tourists. No tourists are known to have been harmed in any way by the supposed incidents; nevertheless, the warning discourages many from visiting. For some educational organizations, a travel advisory causes a regulatory cancellation of travel plans, regardless of the situation on the ground. As a result, student travel programs and others, such as the Smithsonian’s, have not been permitted to carry out their programs in Cuba. The travel advisory is misguided and harmful, as there is no perceivable threat to tourists in the country. American tourism is a driving factor for Cuban economic growth and a limitation on travel, although unofficial, has the potential to be detrimental to the Cuban people.
The Rollback in Action
Trump’s new restrictions towards Cuba are a hard step backward from the progress made; nevertheless, some exceptions remain and highlight the ineffectiveness of these changes to take on a full rollback. Although they are now in effect, those who made prior payments for part or all of their travel or business plans will be permitted to pursue them, regardless of whether or not they comply with the new regulations. In practice, U.S. businesses already working with GAESA will not be affected by the strict new regulations and U.S. citizens who have paid for any part of their trip will be allowed to carry out their plans. There was an initial lack of clarity, however, on which date these payments had to have been made in order to be grandfathered in. At this time it seems that individual people-to-people travel reservations were cut off on June 16, but reservations with any entity from the prohibited list could have been made until November 9.
There are twelve categories under which Americans can travel to Cuba. Aside from eliminating individual people-to-people travel, these permissions go largely unchanged for the other categories that dictate family travel, official government business, journalistic activities, etc. Group people-to-people travel is still permitted and involves educational trips through U.S. organizations “that promote people-to-people contact” and require the presence of a representative from the sponsoring organization. The license authorized as Support for the Cuban People is being amended under the new regulations to require individuals to “engage in a full-time schedule of activities that enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities and that result in meaningful interactions with individuals in Cuba.” All American travelers are expected to keep a log of their activities and full itinerary with little downtime.
U.S. travelers and businesses alike are now prohibited from engaging in direct financial transactions with 180 Cuban enterprises; this list includes numerous hotels, marinas, stores, and various other industries, and will be updated periodically. In terms of economic opportunity, this restriction also prohibits U.S. corporations from investing in a booming new development zone in Mariel, Cuba, where numerous international groups are quickly settling in. For travelers the restrictions are quite inconvenient and force them to be in constant check with the list. Already, questions have arisen over whether they must be aware of and avoid something as trivial as the type of rum that ends up in their cocktails from authorized vendors, as two rum companies are on the prohibited list.
These changes are by no means a full overturn of the progress that has been made over the last three years, but are an unfortunate detour from the path towards normalization. The new regulations further complicate U.S. dealings with Cuba and discourage citizens from traveling merely for the fact that they make the process less clear. The potential decline of U.S. travel to Cuba is detrimental for the Cuban people as their economic mobility relies on the presence of foreigners. While the president stated in June that the “easing of restrictions on travel and trade does not help the Cuban people,” Cuba’s private sector boomed when restrictions were lifted and Americans were encouraged to visit, promoting immense economic growth.
It is clear that the embargo and travel restrictions that have dictated the United States’ policies towards Cuba for the last 57 years have been nothing but harmful to the people of Cuba. While the changes made under the Obama Administration were a step in the right direction, they failed to tackle the root of the issue: the embargo. Trump’s new regulations, both under NSPM and in response to the ‘sonic attacks,’ take the U.S. further from accomplishing this goal; nevertheless, it remains the most decisive factor hindering any attempt to normalize relations between the nations and promote the wellbeing of the Cuban people. After nearly six decades of enacting a destructive policy, it is time to end the embargo.