Saturday, June 17, 2017

My take on President Trump's New Policy

President Trump's strategy to reinforce his base, perhaps with an eye on his serious legal problems, led to outrageous rhetorical excess in Miami.  The larger perspective on national interest of Secretary of State Tillerson was thrown under the guagua.

However the actions taken so far by the Administration are largely symbolic, with the exception of one that defies both the President's own expressed values and common sense, the elimination of the individual general license.   Does that contradiction reflect that the game is far from over, even within Donald Trump and his Administration and certainly with Congress?

The bottom line is that the main channels of travel have not been cut so far: group tours on general licenses, commercial air flights, cruises, remittances, and the protected status of Cuban Americans.  Existing commitments are grandfathered for individuals and for companies.  I say "so far" because the actual regulations when they are issued may try to slip in further bureaucratic roll backs.  Two other major policy roll backs were not made:  restoration of the state sponsor of terrorism listing and of wet foot/dry foot migration rules.

The biggest uncertainty is the impact of the bar on "direct transactions with entities related to the Cuban military, intelligence, or security services".  The presumed target are companies related to the military linked holding company GAESA, including hotels and presumably bus services.  But is a contract with Havanatur that includes a Gaviota hotel a "direct transaction"?  If GAESA sells or transfers companies and properties used by Americans to a state company under the Ministry of Tourism, will it escape US strictures?  What if Habaguanex hotels and restaurants in Old Havana are returned to the Office of the Historian Eusebeo Leal?

Senator Rubio himself tweeted advise to use an individual channel which is at least as hard to define and control as people to people educational travel:

"Individual Americans can travel to #Cuba under Support for the Cuban people category but must use privately owned lodging like AirBnB" 

Other thoughts based on a quick reading of the White House background call for press and OFAC's FAQ clarification of regulations:

1)  The White House in its briefing claimed that its "guiding principle" was to "have the benefits of any economic commerce with the United States go to the Cuban people" and to "steer money away from the Cuban military and towards the Cuban people".  However the new policy eliminates the primary channel that does exactly that at a significantly lower cost for a greater diversity of Americans, i.e. individual, family and small group self-directed travelers who stay in bed and breakfasts, eat in private restaurants and depend on taxis and other public transportation.

2)  It says that group tours are permitted but aspires to forbid use of military holding company linked hotels that provide housing for many groups.

3)  While permitting continuing activity by Airbnb and commercial airlines, it eviscerates their market by ending the individual general license. 

4)  It postures that participation in a guided tour managed and supervised by Cuban authorities is more authentically people to people than a self-organized visit by individuals, families and friends with inherently greater spontaneity, showing colossal distrust of the American people and the Cubans with whom they naturally engage.

5)  The Administration claims to seek to "empower the Cuban people" but does just the opposite by depriving them of unregulated resources from independent travelers and giving greater leverage to security services.

6)  The harsh rhetoric of the President, reflects only the self-delusional beliefs of the old guard Miami minority.  It will be welcome relief over the more subtle challenge of Obama's initiatives for Cuban hard-liners who believe political and economic controls are essential to protect the country from US political interference and economic dominance.

7)  It appears that in the short term the President has accommodated to old guard hard liners whose real objective is to limit the number and variety of Americans that form their own conclusions about Cuba and the wisdom of the embargo.  Ending individual travel returns Cuba largely to the realm of Americans who can afford group tours.

8)  The alternative universe of the hard liners and now of the Administration was  manifested in the White House briefing: "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."  While reforms are slower and narrower than many Cubans desire, they are inescapably present.

I have posted the comments of three friends who frequently meet with US visitors who appreciate their independent experienced perspective: Carlos Alzugaray, Rafael Hernandez and Jose Viera..

I have highlighted and commented on the OFAC and White House documents here

John McAuliff

(revised 6/29)

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