Los Angeles Times

U.S. pulls back from a new Cuba

A year after Trump reversed opening by Obama, White House content on sidelines.

- By Tracy Wilkinson tracy.wilkinson @latimes.com

White House sits on sidelines during a time of unpreceden­ted political transition, while Russia and China move in.

WASHINGTON — A year ago, President Trump announced tougher policies concerning Cuba, reinstatin­g travel and trade restrictio­ns eased by the historic Obama-era opening between Washington and Havana.

As a result, the United States today is largely sitting on the sidelines as the communist-ruled island faces potentiall­y major changes in its economic and political relations with the region.

The problem is exacerbate­d because the recently reopened U.S. Embassy in Havana sits nearly empty. Most U.S. personnel were withdrawn last year after two dozen diplomats and other employees reported unexplaine­d medical problems that left some with hearing loss or mild brain damage.

As the U.S. chill with Cuba deepens, Trump has praised one of the world’s most notorious despots, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and promised economic opportunit­y if Kim’s government gives up its nuclear weapons.

“It is baff ling we are going in the opposite direction on Cuba,” said Carlos Gutierrez, who was secretary of Commerce under President George W. Bush and opposes Trump’s reversal on Cuba.

Trump “wants to increase prosperity in North Korea but keeps outrageous sanctions on Cuba,” said Gutierrez, whose family fled the island after the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro. “After almost 60 years of animosity, it’s time to rebuild ties.”

President Obama sought to rebuild those ties in December 2014, when he and Cuban President Raul Castro simultaneo­usly announced plans to restore diplomatic relations broken since 1961, shortly after Fidel Castro took over.

Within months, Obama had loosened decades-old restrictio­ns on Americans and U.S. companies traveling to and doing business with Cuba.

Each country opened an embassy in the other’s capital, and travel across the Florida Straits and momand-pop businesses in Cuba flourished.

During his campaign, Trump vacillated between denouncing the Cuban “dictatorsh­ip” and vowing to make a “better deal” with Havana. Once in office, he said he was “canceling ” Obama’s arrangemen­t and blasted the Cuban government’s human rights abuses, which consist of persistent harassment of dissidents.

The changes that Trump announced on June 16, 2017, in the heart of the Cuban exile community in Miami, were minor in scope but had a deep impact.

He restricted the ability of Americans to travel to Cuba as tourists. U.S. businesses could still operate there, although the administra­tion later barred any dealings with an estimated 180 firms or entities tied to or controlled by the Cuban military.

The Cuban army is deeply entwined with the Cuban economy, especially in the tourism industry. Several hotels and a handful of restaurant­s belong to the military.

Trump said the measures would prevent money from going to Cuba’s military or intelligen­ce services and eventually force the government to open up politicall­y and tolerate dissent. He said the goal was to stand up to “communist oppression.”

But because of Trump’s sweeping rhetoric in Miami, many Americans thought it was no longer possible to travel to Cuba.

U.S. tourism has fallen precipitou­sly this year, although internatio­nal cruise ship visits are hitting record highs.

U.S. exports of chicken and other food and agricultur­al products from farm states that supported Trump remained strong. Some of that commerce is governed by regulation­s that predate Obama’s normalizat­ion of relations.

Exports of U.S. food and agricultur­al products to Cuba are up 25% thus far this year compared with 2017, according to John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, which supports business with the island.

Trump’s trade restrictio­ns largely hit small Cuban businesses, including hair salons, restaurant­s, car washes and bed-and-breakfasts, the kind of small-scale capitalism the White House professed to support. Less harmed was the government apparatus.

The number of small businesses in Cuba grew from 157,000 in 2010 to 567,000 at the start of 2017, according to a study by the Americas Society, a business organizati­on based in New York. Since early 2017, the number of new applicants for private business licenses has plummeted.

More than a loss of economic opportunit­y, Washington seems to be sitting out on possible influence during a time of unpreceden­ted political transition, according to academics and diplomats.

For the first time since the revolution, Cuba is ruled by someone not named Castro.

Fidel Castro, the country’s legendary leader, died in November 2016. That opened the way for gradual change in the sclerotic government.

His brother Raul, who had taken over in 2008 during Fidel’s illness, loosened domestic travel restrictio­ns for Cubans and allowed the country’s first dabbling in private enterprise in nearly half a century.

Miguel Diaz-Canel, handpicked by Raul as his successor, is overseeing the drafting of a new constituti­on and is regarded as a younger-generation figure more open to technology, internet access and other trappings of modernity.

But under Trump, the United States has refused to engage, reducing its interactio­n to a series of low-level meetings.

“We had more opportunit­y to influence them than we ever had,” said John Caulfield, a veteran U.S. diplomat who headed the American interests section in Havana from 2011 to 2014, an office that served in lieu of an embassy for decades.

“We have lost that” following Trump’s restrictio­ns, Caulfield said.

China and Russia, which had pulled back from the island that they once sponsored, are moving back in at full speed, financing infrastruc­ture and other projects, raising alarms at U.S. Southern Command military headquarte­rs outside Miami.

“The fact that we are giving them [Russia and China] a free hand to extend their presence is not in the U.S. national interest,” said William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert and author of “Back Channel to Cuba,” which chronicled the 18 months of secret negotiatio­ns that led to the Obama opening with Havana.

LeoGrande said Trump has essentiall­y “outsourced his foreign policy” to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of an inf luential but diminishin­g group of conservati­ve Cuban Americans staunchly opposed to engagement with Cuba.

 ?? Emily Michot Miami Herald ?? WORKERS at the U.S. Embassy in Havana exit the building after the State Department announced that it was pulling nonessenti­al personnel in September.
Emily Michot Miami Herald WORKERS at the U.S. Embassy in Havana exit the building after the State Department announced that it was pulling nonessenti­al personnel in September.

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