June 15–A year after President Donald Trump came to South Florida to announce he was “canceling” his predecessor’s “one-sided deal with Cuba,” not much seems to have changed.
“What it did was make people think, ‘I can’t go to Cuba,'” said Renee Radabaugh, CEO of Paragon Events, a Delray Beach agency that offers Cuba tours. “But it really didn’t change much as far as people-to-people exchanges.”
The regulations on how much money you can take to Cuba are the same, but the rules on bringing back a tightly limited number of cigars and rum bottles “have been loosened a lot,” Radabaugh said.
“You just can’t legally bring back 500 boxes of cigars,” she said.
In fact, the signature features of former President Barack Obama’s historic diplomatic opening to Cuba remain in place.
The immigration “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which the Obama administration suspended in its last week, remains a relic of the Cold War past. Cuba and the United States still staff embassies in each other’s capital cities — although a mysterious, unexplained illness among American officials in Havana resulted in significant downsizing of personnel at both diplomatic outposts.
The persistence of so much of the Obama legacy is at odds with the expectations following Trump’s June 16, 2017 speech in Little Havana.
Speaking to a boisterous crowd at the Manuel Artime Theater, Trump called the Obama policy a “terrible and misguided deal” and then signed an executive order pledging action “to improve human rights, encourage the rule of law, foster free markets and free enterprise” and promote democracy in Cuba.
“The previous administration’s easing of restrictions on travel and trade does not help the Cuban people. They only enrich the Cuban regime,” Trump said.
Five months later, in November, the administration followed up with a series of changes to Cuban travel regulations and guidelines. Americans traveling to Cuba, for example, once again have to go through authorized tour operators. And they are barred from dealing with dozens of Cuban hotels, shops, tour companies and other businesses with links to Cuba’s military, intelligence or security services.
After an initial drop in bookings, Radabaugh said, business has again surged. So, from South Florida, cruise ships still sail to the communist island’s ports of call. From local runways, commercial airlines, including JetBlue and Southwest Airlines, still fly routes to Havana.
Two West Palm Beach travel agencies specializing in travel to Cuba report it’s still travel as usual.
At Cuban-American Travel on South Military Trail, an agent said Trump’s announcement has had no impact on their business, which she said caters to Cuban-Americans visiting the island to see loved ones. Another agent, at Evelyn Services Inc. on South Dixie Highway, said much the same.
Claudia Mace, managing partner at Commodore Travel in Delray Beach, said the tightening of the travel policy has produced a more positive experience for those vacationing in Cuba.
Mace said Cuba does not possess developed tourism infrastructure as do other Caribbean destinations. She recounts meeting a family in Havana’sJose Marti International Airport that had decided to cut short their five-day stay.
“They were bored,” she said. “They just did not know where to go, or what to do once they got there.”
Cuba does offer a slew of experiential opportunities, ranging from culinary tours to rum tasting to diving eco-tours on the island’s still-pristine reefs. Mace said the trick is planning ahead with tour promoters and travel agencies that can connect visitors with the right tours and excursions.
“The current administration didn’t stop any of that,” Mace said. “They just brought it back to the way it was, which is people-t0-people. I think it’s much better.”
Radabaugh and Mace also touted Cuba as a safe tourism destination, despite a warning from U.S. officials three months ago.
The U.S. State Department, which has spent much of the past year grappling with the mysterious illness afflicting U.S. embassy officials in Havana, on March 2 issued an alert advising Americans to “reconsider” travel to Cuba.
The suspected sonic attacks left as many as 24 embassy employees feeling a range of serious maladies including “ear complaints and hearing loss, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, cognitive issues, visual problems” and other ailments. The State Department has reduced its embassy staff in Havana by two-thirds, and expelled more than a dozen Cuban diplomats from the embassy in Washington.
“Because our personnel’s safety is at risk, and we are unable to identify the source, we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk,” the State Department advised.
So far, though, American tourists traveling to the island have not reported similar health issues.
One segment of U.S.-Cuba commercial opportunity that seems to have softened, one expert says, is investment.
Adolfo Garcia, an attorney and part-time Palm Beach resident who advises individuals and corporations on commerce with Cuba, said it’s partly the result of the Trump administration tightening rules and partly the result of “hardliners in the Cuban government increasing their leverage.”
“It’s the exact opposite now,” said Garcia, a partner with Brown Rudnick in Boston. “Two or three years ago it was a different ballgame.”
Meanwhile, Garcia said that in the wake of the transfer of leadership from Raul Castro to Miguel Díaz-Canel, Havana has signaled it is less interested in expanding the business and diplomatic opening with the United States.
“Ironically, I think even if Hillary [Clinton] had been elected, I am not sure there’d be more progress,” he said.
That much is good news to those in Miami’s Cuban community that, a year ago, cheered as Trump pledged a crackdown.
Felix Rodriguez, a Bay of Pigs veteran involved in the group that invited the president last June, said he is not frustrated that more hasn’t been done to roll back the Obama policy.
“I am not disappointed at all,” said Rodriguez, a former Brigade 2506 president. “I understand the geopolitical priorities this administration has had to address, from the Middle East to North Korea.”
Rodriguez said turning back two hallmarks of the Obama policy, the presence of embassies and the suspension of the “wet foot, dry foot” immigration policy, are not high priorities for him.
The presence of the embassies, he said, could be a way to exact pressure on the Cuban government. And the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, while providing asylum to Cubans who came to the United States escaping political persecution, also was a floodgate of sorts for those coming for economic reasons.
“And those, a year and day after arriving, returned to Cuba for visits,” he said. “Obviously they were not that persecuted.”
Instead, Rodriguez said the priority is curtailing the expansion of travel to Cuba, which he and others insist funds the Cuban dictatorship and bolsters the army.
Rodriguez, a former CIA agent who helped capture Che Guevara in 1967, said it gives him hope that Trump is surrounded by aides who embrace the Brigade’s goals.
“I’ve known [Mike] Pompeo for a long time and we have a great relationship with John Bolton,” he said of the U.S. secretary of state and national security advisor, respectively. “They are very capable and they are as committed as we are to a free Cuba.”
“The millionaires tourism,” he said. “We have to stop the funding of the military and the regime.”
This article provided by NewsEdge.