BY NORA GÁMEZ TORRES
Nuevo Herald News Sanctions, SEPTEMBER 23, 2020 05:22 PM
Trump with Bay of Pigs Veterans
Americans traveling to Cuba will not be able to buy rum or tobacco as souvenirs, nor will they be able to stay in government hotels, according to new restrictions announced by President Donald Trump on Wednesday.
“Today as part of our continuing fight against communist oppression, I am announcing that the Treasury Department will prohibit U.S. travelers from staying at properties owned by the Cuban government,” Trump said in a speech to honor Bay of Pigs veterans at the White House. “We are also further restricting the importation of Cuban alcohol and Cuban tobacco. These actions will ensure U.S. dollars do not fund the Cuban regime.”
The Treasury Department modified the embargo regulations on Cuba to prohibit imports of rum and tobacco, as well as lodging in hotels or properties controlled by the Cuban government, government officials and the Communist Party, or their close relatives.
The properties appear in a new list created by the Department of State. Travel and tourism companies subject to U.S. jurisdiction will not be able to make reservations at these properties.
The list names 433 hotels and properties, including some “casas particulares” (private rentals) that the State Department determined were not independent of the government, said Carrie Filipetti, deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, in a call with reporters on Wednesday.
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Among the private rentals included is Casa Vida Luxury Holidays, a property advertised on Airbnb that, according to media reports, is linked to Vilma Rodríguez, granddaughter of Communist Party head and former president Raúl Castro.
The measures will deal a harsh blow to Cuba’s tourism industry because the government owns all the island’s hotels. Many travel companies have operations in the United States and will therefore be affected by the measure. Previously, the administration had banned accommodation in hotels run by military companies, but now the prohibition extends to all state-run properties.
Thousands of Cuban Americans who travel to the island every year usually take their families on vacation at these hotels.
“The prohibition on the use of hotels owned by the government of Cuba will also result in fewer airline flights from the United States to Cuba,” said John Kavulich, the president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
Filipetti said the restrictions aim at denying funds to the government, which dominates the hospitality industry as well as tobacco and rum production. She added that the policy intends to benefit owners of private bed and breakfasts.
“The Cuban government profits from properties in the hospitality industry owned or controlled by the Cuban government … all at the expense of the Cuban people, who continue to face repression at the hands of the regime,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a statement. “Authorized travelers should instead stay in private accommodations, or casas particulares, owned and operated by legitimately independent entrepreneurs.”
The Treasury Department also eliminated a general authorization policy for the participation or organization of conferences, seminars, exhibitions and sporting events. Citizens, residents and companies subject to U.S. law must apply for a specific authorization or license for these activities.
Organizations in favor of more engagement with Cuba quickly pointed out that further restricting travel to Cuba could also hurt the private sector the administration officials say the U.S. wants to lift up.
“To continue limiting American citizens to travel to Cuba is to continue to put pressure on Cuba’s growing private sector, which is already hurting from the domestic economic crisis, the impact of U.S. policies, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said María José Espinosa, interim president of Engage Cuba.
The new rules will go into effect Thursday, when they will be officially published in the Federal Register.
MORE SANCTIONS TO CUBA
Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel blasted on Twitter the U.S. “empire” and the new measures “that violate the rights of Cubans and Americans. Its cruel and criminal policy will be defeated by our people, who will never renounce their sovereignty.”
In the last two years, the administration has intensified its “maximum pressure” campaign against the Cuban government, citing human rights violations and its support of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.
In June, the Trump administration included Fincimex, a company controlled by the military conglomerate GAESA, on a list of entities linked to the Cuban military. Persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction are prohibited from direct financial transactions with these entities.
The United States also suspended all charter and commercial flights to Cuba, except for flights to Havana. It also limited per person remittances to $1,000 per quarter. And it has sanctioned companies involved in the shipments of Venezuelan oil to Cuba.
U.S. sanctions, the coronavirus pandemic, and the decline in Venezuela’s oil aid have plunged Cuba’s inefficient socialist economy into a deep crisis. The population suffers from a severe shortage of food, medicine and hygiene products, and although the government has promised some economic reforms, none appear to be immediate.
On Tuesday, Díaz-Canel complained to the United Nations General Assembly about the increase in the “aggressiveness of the U.S. blockade. … Not a week goes by without that government issuing statements against Cuba or imposing new restrictions.”
U.S. officials have rejected the Cuban government’s narrative and have pushed back on criticism that the sanctions may aggravate the situation of ordinary Cubans.
What the Cuban people are “going through, it’s a serious humanitarian concern. The embargo has specific provisions to allow Cuba to import food from the United States; it has exceptions for food and medical supplies,” said Mara Tekach, coordinator for Cuban affairs at the State Department in an interview with the Miami Herald on Wednesday. Citing Cuba’s long-standing inability to feed its population, Tekach added that “the regime is the one that ultimately is failing its people.“
The sanctions and the unrelenting attacks on socialism have secured President Trump the support of a significant portion of Cuban-American voters.
“The Obama-Biden administration made a weak, pathetic, one-sided deal with the Castro dictatorship that betrayed the Cuban people and enriched the communist regime,” Trump said in the White House speech. “Today, we reaffirm our ironclad solidarity with the Cuban people, and our eternal conviction that freedom will prevail over the sinister forces of communism.”
Filipetti denied that the timing of the announcement was linked to the upcoming presidential election, as critics of the administration have suggested.
“This announcement, just weeks before the presidential election, shows what the Trump Administration’s Cuba policy is really about,” said Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel. “It’s about South Florida and it places absolutely no importance on the well-being of the Cuban people, democracy, human rights or advancing U.S. national interests in the region.”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres