Business or Politics? What Trump Means for Cuba
Business or Politics? What Trump Means for Cuba
By FRANCES ROBLESNOV. 15, 2016
MIAMI — To Chad Olin, it seemed like the perfect opportunity: Decades of
animosity between the United States and Cuba were peeling away, opening
a final frontier in the Caribbean to dollar-wielding Americans.
Mr. Olin, 30, a Harvard Business School graduate, gave up a career in
private equity to break into the Cuba travel market. He started a
company that organizes trips for millennials to legally visit Cuba — a
business made possible because President Obama has broadened travel to
the island and expanded licenses for Americans to do business there.
So what happens now, Mr. Olin wonders.
On the campaign trail, President-elect Donald J. Trump threatened to
roll back the sweeping détente with Cuba, lambasting the “concessions”
made to its Communist government and raising the possibility that one of
Mr. Obama’s signature foreign policy initiatives could be stripped away.
“I am still trying to think about what this means for my business that I
spent literally the last two years working on, setting up something that
was going to be perfect for an open market,” Mr. Olin said. “If we go
back to the old way, I don’t know if I have a business. It’s a huge blow.”
Hundreds of thousands of people have taken advantage of Mr. Obama’s
decisions to loosen travel and other restrictions on Cuba. More
Americans and Cuban émigrés now travel to Cuba, and the number of
Americans who visited the country rose by 50 percent last year,
according to the state news media.
More Cubans receive money transfers and parcels. There’s a Four Points
Sheraton in Havana, and three more hotels are set to open. Airbnb rents
private rooms, and American Airlines is about to start direct flights to
For them, and Mr. Olin, the critical question remains whether Mr. Trump,
a real estate mogul and hotel developer, will be a businessman at heart
and allow Mr. Obama’s measures to continue — or if he will instead keep
a vow he made and scale back everything from diplomatic relations to the
unlimited rum and cigars Mr. Obama recently allowed from Cuba.
Such a move by Mr. Trump would underscore the shifting relations between
the United States and Cuba, which have long depended on who occupied the
“Several large European investment groups have asked me to take the
‘Trump Magic’ to Cuba,” Mr. Trump once wrote in a 1999 editorial in The
Miami Herald supporting the trade embargo against Cuba.
“My investment in Cuba would directly subsidize the oppression of the
Cuban people,” he said at the time. “But I’d rather lose those millions
than lose my self-respect.”
Mr. Trump has, at other times, been vague on the issue. During the
primary contest, he repeatedly said he thought restoring diplomatic
relations with Cuba was “fine,” but added that the United States and the
Cuban people did not get enough in return.
But as the election approached, Mr. Trump grew less equivocal.
In March, he told CNN that he would “probably” continue having
diplomatic relations with Cuba, but he said he would want “much better
deals than we’re making.”
Then, Mr. Trump took a harder line in Miami this fall.
“All of the concessions Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were
done through executive order, which means the next president can reverse
them, and that I will do unless the Castro regime meets our demands,”
Mr. Trump said at a campaign event in September. “Not my demands. Our
Vice President-elect Mike Pence reaffirmed that stance on Twitter,
saying Mr. Trump would repeal Mr. Obama’s executive orders unless there
was “real political and religious freedom.”
Asked by a reporter if his comments meant he would break off diplomatic
relations with Cuba, Mr. Trump suggested that he might, and said he
probably would not appoint an ambassador to Cuba.
“The agreement President Obama signed is a very weak agreement,” he
said. “We get nothing. The people of Cuba get nothing, and I would do
whatever is necessary to get a good agreement.”
Robert L. Muse, a lawyer who specializes in United States-Cuba trade
law, said Mr. Trump seemed to believe that Washington had struck a
single deal with Cuba, when in reality there are several agreements that
range from direct mail to managing oil spills.
Mr. Trump could pick through them one by one to eliminate the ones he
dislikes and keep others. But Mr. Muse said the American government
could be financially liable if it pulled out the rug from under
companies that had acted in good faith.
“Rescinding enhanced travel that Obama has introduced would be the most
tragic thing Trump might do, but I don’t think he will,” Mr. Muse said.
“He has invested a lifetime in travel, resorts and hotel accommodations,
and it’s a global enterprise. It seems counterintuitive.”
What else could Mr. Trump do?
Change travel rules. Tourism to Cuba is still illegal under the embargo,
but President Bill Clinton was the first to allow “people-to-people”
excursions that allow travelers to go if the trip is, for example, for
educational or religious purposes. President George W. Bush scrapped
those, and then Mr. Obama expanded them so that travelers no longer
needed to get special permission first.
Under Mr. Bush, a Cuban-American could visit once every three years.
Now, it’s unlimited.
End regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba. Cuba and the United
States agreed to allow up to 90 daily round-trip flights between the
nations, the Department of Transportation said.
Southwest began its service on Sunday, and American Airlines is set to
start flights to Havana on Nov. 28.
“We are full steam ahead and can’t speculate as to any possible future
changes,” Martha Pantin, an American Airlines spokeswoman, said.
Scrap the contentious “wet foot, dry foot” policy. When tens of
thousands of Cubans took to the seas in 1994, Mr. Clinton changed
American policy so that anyone caught at sea was sent back. But tens of
thousands of Cubans continue to migrate to the United States anyway,
most by land, because if they arrive they can stay. Many have walked
across the Americas to reach the southern border.
“One of the big, main ways Trump looks at foreign policy is through the
issue of immigration,” said Phil Peters, a longtime Cuba expert who now
serves as a consultant for American companies seeking to do business
there. “When it gets to Cuba, he’s going to see a country where there’s
a lot of illegal immigration coming to the United States.”
Change the rules that allow businesses like Airbnb and Marriott to
operate in Cuba. He can do this. But if he’s a developer at heart, would he?
John S. Kavulich, the president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic
Council, said that in the 1990s the Trump organization inquired with him
about the logistics of doing business in Cuba. Newsweek reported that
Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts paid at least $68,000 to a consulting firm
in late 1998 to go to Cuba on the company’s behalf, in an apparent
violation of the American trade embargo.
Maurcio Claver-Carone, the founder of a political action committee that
supports the trade embargo, said Mr. Trump seemed genuinely moved by
stories of human rights violations in Cuba, so he “made a commitment” to
the Cuban-American community that he was likely to keep.
He is most likely to repeal the orders that were “blatantly inconsistent
with U.S. law,” Mr. Claver-Caron said, such as allowing investments with
companies run by the Cuban military. (The hotel industry in Cuba is run
by the armed forces.)
Mr. Trump could also overturn a move from late October that broadened
the pool of Cuban officials who are allowed to receive cash allowances
and conduct banking transactions with Americans, he said.
The Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment.
But in Cuba, several people interviewed said the changes Mr. Obama made
had not yet made their way down to the people. Some felt that the
expansion of business opportunities had helped the Castro government,
not the people, so they were generally pleased with the idea of a Trump
Roberto Peñalber, 34, said many Cubans had felt forced to flee under Mr.
Obama, because they feared he would rescind preferable immigration
treatment for Cubans.
“Now we don’t have to worry about that,” he said. “Trump could possibly
make better deals than Hillary. She’s more communist than he is. That’s
maybe why the United States voted for Trump.”
Follow Frances Robles on Twitter @FrancesRobles.
Hannah Berkeley Cohen contributed to this report from Havana.
Source: Business or Politics? What Trump Means for Cuba – The New York