Has President Trump's year-old Cuba policy helped the Cuban people?


Mimi Whitefield, The Miami Herald


While Cuban diplomats keep traveling the United States insisting it is time for the U.S. embargo to be lifted and prospecting for support at American universities, city councils and state legislatures, the Trump administration appears to have little interest in engaging on the embargo or Cuba's other major issue — occupation of the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base.


Neither, U.S. officials have said, will be considered until Cuba makes significant changes in its political system. That hasn't changed in the year since President Donald Trump announced his Cuba policy during a visit to Miami.


Cuba's new leader Miguel Díaz-Canel, meanwhile, seems unlikely to concede to U.S. pressure on that front either: "I confirm that Cuba's foreign policy will remain unchanged. Cuba will not accept conditions," he told the National Assembly when he was inaugurated on April 19.


When U.S. officials do speak about Cuba these days, it's generally to hammer its human rights record.


But here is a startling put perhaps coincidental statistic: Since Trump took office, the number of short-term detentions and people held for political motives has declined. The Havana-based Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation documented 5,155 such cases last year, compared to 8,616 and 9,940 during the last two years of the Obama administration.


The number of detentions spiked in the months before President Barack Obama's March 2016 visit to the island as authorities tried to keep a lid on dissent, but then the number of documented cases, while still high, began to gradually taper off, according to commission statistics.


The number of monthly cases documented by the commission ranged from 319 to 347 during the first four months of this year. In May, they fell to 128 — the lowest monthly number in three years. But Elizardo Sánchez, who heads the independent commission, didn't attribute the drop to more tolerance on the part of the Cuban government.


Instead, he said, the May numbers were lower because of other factors that affected Cubans' activism: Poor weather conditions kept many people indoors, Cubans were preoccupied and took more time trying to find food and other staples, transportation was difficult, and the deaths of 112 people in a May 18 airline crash left the nation shell-shocked.


Cuban human rights activists estimated that at the end of May there were 120 political prisoners in Cuba, but Sánchez said it is difficult to come up with an exact number because political prisoners are mixed in with common criminals.


When Trump announced his new Cuba policy last summer, he said it was designed to bypass "the military and the government to help the Cuban people themselves form businesses and pursue much better lives."


Last November, as promised, the Trump administration published a list of 180 prohibited companies, hotels and stores controlled by the Cuban military that are off-limits. No American citizen, firm, green-card holder or person otherwise under U.S. jurisdiction is allowed to carry out direct financial transactions with any entity on the list.


But the list, which hasn't been updated since November, doesn't even include all the hotels run by Cuba's military conglomerate, and Americans still have the option of staying at hotel chains operated by the Cuban Ministry of Tourism.


Trump also promised the United States would "take concrete steps to ensure that investments flow directly to the people so they can open private businesses."


A State Department spokesperson cited the list itself, which "aims to encourage travelers and companies to engage with the Cuban private sector," when asked what concrete steps had been taken to help Cuba's private sector.


Under the new policy, visits by Americans to the island have slowed and U.S. business interest has waned.


The United States and Cuba also are at loggerheads over mysterious incidents that have plagued the health of more than two dozen U.S. diplomats stationed in Havana and resulted in the withdrawal of two-thirds of embassy personnel in Cuba and the expulsion of 17 Cuban diplomats from the United States.


With only a skeletal staff at the embassy, visa-issuing operations have virtually shut down and It has become more difficult for Cubans to visit and emigrate to the United States because they must go to third countries to make their visa applications.


During the seventh U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Commission, held in Washington Thursday, the United States once again told Cuba that "until it is sufficiently safe to fully staff our embassy, we will not be able to provide regular visa services in Havana," according to a State Department media note..


While the embargo still remains in place, the Obama administration rewrote U.S. regulations widening the range of Cuban business and travel pursuits in which Americans could engage. Business executives headed to the island to explore opportunities. Cuba, however, has been slow on making decisions on U.S. business overtures, and many American executives have lost interest given the current state of U.S.-Cuba relations.


"My Cuba business has plummeted," said Peter Quinter, an international lawyer. "I only have one client pursuing an agricultural project in Cuba. During the Obama rapprochement with Cuba, he said, Americans interested in pursuing Cuba deals "were starting to be a significant part of my business."


But it is travel that has taken the biggest hit. Tour operators say confusion about whether travel to the island by individuals is still allowed under the Trump regulations — it is — and a U.S. travel warning that Americans visitors could be at risk for the same type of health symptoms that plagued the diplomats — even though the incidents occurred at the diplomats' homes and reportedly in just three hotel rooms — have cut into American travel.


A later U.S. travel advisory recommended that Americans "reconsider" trips to Cuba because of the health scare.


The number of Americans — not counting visits by Cuban Americans — fell 56.6 percent during the first three months of this year compared to 2017, according to Cuban tourism officials. In 2017, nearly 620,000 Americans, about six times more than before the Obama opening, visited Cuba.


"People can still go to Cuba independently but practically no one knows about it," said John McAuliff, executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, which promotes engagement between Cuba and the United States. "The private bed and breakfasts are hurting; the airlines and private restaurants are hurting. Between the travel warning and changing the categories of travel it has taken a toll."


Rather than reaping a benefit because U.S. travelers can't stay at military-run hotels, Cuban entrepreneurs complain that the confusing U.S. travel policy has hurt them disproportionally because individual travelers tend to stay with them rather than at state-owned hotels. Business, some say, is down 30 to 40 percent because U.S. travel in general is down.


"But there is one form of travel to Cuba that is booming and that is cruises," McAuliff said, "and most of the revenue from the cruise industry goes to the state. With cruise terminal fees, buses, tours, and cruise passengers eating at mostly state restaurants, it's channeling more money to official circles."


Meanwhile, U.S.-Cuba policy seems to be making some progress on other fronts.


Since Trump took office, the two countries have met around two dozen times on topics such as migration, public health, combating illicit drugs, environmental protection, law enforcement, agriculture, people smuggling and migration fraud, fugitives from justice, cybersecurity, anti-money laundering, maritime safety, civil aviation and human rights.


In April both sides agreed to resume direct mail service on a permanent basis instead of relying on poky service through third countries, and in an event that would have been unthinkable during the Cold War era, Cuban scientists and researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey got in a boat together and carried out a joint maritime expedition in May off the Florida Keys.


Their goal: to identify possible land movement, coastal flooding and changes in sea level caused by tsunamis and hurricanes.


U.S. Cuba policy seems to be proceeding on two tracks with little progress on major issues but advances in areas of mutual interest for both countries. "Trump is treating Cuba more like a domestic policy issue than a foreign policy issue," said John Caulfield, who headed the U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba from 2011 until July 2014.


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