Trump US President to announce curbs on business with Cuban military

President Donald Trump will announce curbs on US firms doing business with the Cuban military and tighter rules on travel to the island on Friday during a visit to the spiritual home of the Cuban-American exile community.

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US President Donald Trump holds up a memorandum tightening restrictions on trade and travel to Cuba play

US President Donald Trump holds up a memorandum tightening restrictions on trade and travel to Cuba

(AFP)
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President Donald Trump will announce curbs on US firms doing business with the Cuban military and tighter rules on travel to the island on Friday during a visit to the spiritual home of the Cuban-American exile community.

Trump will appear in Miami's Little Havana at a theater named after an anti-communist veteran of the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion to launch a move that will begin to roll back his predecessor Barack Obama's outreach to Havana.

US officials told reporters that he will announce a prohibition on "financial transactions" with Cuba's military-backed tourism conglomerate GAESA, a body which might otherwise have hoped for a windfall from long absent American visitors.

"The basic policy driver is concern that the previous policy was enriching the military and the intelligence services that contribute so much to oppression on the island," a senior administration official said.

"That's the opposite of what he wanted to achieve," he added, arguing that Trump's move is not a step back to the Cold War-era embargo that Obama started to dismantle, but a recognition that Raul Castro's one-party regime has a long way to go to meet its promises of reform.

"The hope of the administration is that the Cuban regime will see this as an opportunity for them to implement the reforms that they paid lip service to a couple of years ago but that have not in any way been implemented to the benefit of the Cuban people," he said.

The firm -- run by Castro's son-in-law Luis Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas -- is involved in joint ventures with several foreign firms that have driven a tourism boom on the island, including the Marriott hotel chain.

The official said the new restrictions would not go into place until new regulations are published, and played down the threat to US business interests.

"It's not that he is opposed to any deal with Cuba, he is opposed to a bad deal with Cuba," he said of Trump.

Under a new National Security Presidential Memorandum, Trump is also expected to announce stricter enforcement of the rules under which Americans can travel to Cuba.

American citizens will still be able to take commercial flights to Cuba, but only for 12 specific reasons -- ranging from journalism to educational activities -- which will be more strictly enforced.

Cuban-Americans will still be able to travel to Cuba and send remittances, limiting the impact in Florida, where many Cuban emigres settled and where many of them turned out last year to vote for Trump.

Miami's Cuban-American population, members of which will greet Trump on Friday in the Manuel Artime Theater, have a reputation for diehard anti-communism and an opposition to thawing ties.

But in the Little Havana district on Thursday some -- even those who had fled oppression -- were philosophical about detente.

"Obama did the right thing," said 77-year-old Manuel Gonzales, who left the island in 2006. "The only person responsible for the embargo was Castro. We have to look forward, not back."

Trump's measures stop well short of upending Obama-era policies, which sought to end decades of isolation that did little to dislodge Fidel and Raul Castro's regime.

There are also expected to be exemptions for agricultural products as well as some air and sea operations.

But they signal a tougher stance that could slow the number of Americans who have begun to head to Cuba for Havana city breaks or on week-long beach holidays.

'Exceedingly disappointing'

Boosting travel was a key aim of Obama's painstaking effort to restore ties with the communist-run island, which included a landmark visit by the then-president in 2016.

Some 285,000 people visited the Caribbean country in 2016, up 74 percent over 2015, with Americans the third biggest group after Canadians and Cuban expats.

"New restrictions on engagement with Cuban economy only pushes Cuba to China and Russia who will gladly make up the difference," said Ben Rhodes, the architect of Obama's Cuba policy.

"Any limitations on travel hurt Cuban small business owners -- restaurants, shops, taxis -- that depend on travelers for revenue."

Engage Cuba, a group lobbying for an end to the embargo, estimates that 10,000 US jobs in aviation and the cruise business already depend on Cuba.

Even with carve outs, the new policy could pose problems for some US businesses, including hoteliers and airlines who have put on regular flights between the US and the Cuban capital.

In a statement ahead of Trump's announcement, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson defended the firm's decision to invest in Cuba.

It recently entered a joint venture with GAESA to run the "Four Points by Sheraton" in Havana, investing "significant resources" to establish a foothold.

"It would be exceedingly disappointing to see the progress that has been made in the last two years halted and reversed by the administration," Sorenson said.

Trump accused Cuba of "cruel despotism" in May, which raised ironic cheers from rights supporters used to his cozying up to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other autocratic states.

But watchdog groups such as Human Rights Watch are skeptical of a return to the terms of the half-century Cold War stand-off, with its total trade embargo and no diplomatic ties.

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