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4 takeaways from Trump's Cuba speech
President Trump on Friday announced a handful of rollbacks to the previous administration's policy on Cuba.
Surrounded by members of his administration and GOP lawmakers who have pushed for a harder line on the island nation, Trump said he was fulfilling a campaign promise to clamp down on Cuban President Raul Castro's government.
"We will not lift sanctions on the Cuban regime until all political prisoners are freed, freedoms of assembly and expression are respected, all political parties are legalized, and free and internationally supervised elections are scheduled," Trump said.
Castro is stepping down next year, marking the end of the family dynasty that ruled the country since the 1959 revolution.
Trump also directed his administration to institute new restrictions on doing business with Cuban military entities and travel to Cuba by individuals.
Here are four takeaways from Trump's big policy announcement.
Trump put the emphasis on human rights
The Trump administration has taken some heat, even from Republicans, for its friendliness toward leaders of countries with questionable records on human rights.
But Trump was unsparing in his criticisms of Cuba Friday, vowing to "expose the crimes of the Castro regime and stand with the Cuban people in their struggle for freedom."
"Because we know it is best for America to have freedom in our hemisphere, whether in Cuba or Venezuela, and to have a future where the people of each country can live out their own dreams," he said.
The White House denied that the speech represented a shift for the administration.
"I dispute that he has a lack of interest in human rights in other countries," Michael Anton, an NSC deputy assistant, told reporters on Air Force One. "It's true that the president approaches the question of human rights in different ways, depending on the relationship the United States has with a particular country."
But in a twist, human rights groups who have been critical of Trump were less than thrilled with the new restrictions on Cuba. Isolating the nation, those groups say, ultimately hurts the Cuban people and empowers Castro.
"More travel, more communications' access, and more dialogue with Cuba are the way forward for human rights in Cuba," Amnesty International said this week.
No talk of 'jobs, jobs, jobs'
Although the administration focused on jobs this week, Trump sidestepped criticism that his Cuba shift would backfire on the travel and agriculture industries.
Even GOP stalwarts Americans for Tax Reform and Freedom Works warned in an open letter on Thursday that "travel to and trade with Cuba boosts American businesses and spreads free market ideals to the island."
The White House singled out the Department of Agriculture, among other federal agencies, as "actively engaged" in the Cuba policy review.
The White House says the new rules will still allow business-to-business engagement. "But we'll make sure those profits will not benefit the Cuban military," said a senior official.
"We also very much want to see that kind of expansion of commercial interaction with Cuba," the official said. "That's entirely up to Raul Castro to make that happen."
Experts raise concern that there's no clarity for U.S. telecommunication providers that want to gain a foothold in the country.
The internet is key for the dissident community in Cuba, but only about 5 percent of Cubans have access to it, according to Emily Parker, author of "Now I Know Who My Comrades Are."
"It allows them to express themselves relatively freely, communicate their message and also appeal for help from the outside world," she said. "It would be good to make it easier and less confusing for US companies to invest in this area."
It is hard to predict the impact of Trump's new directive before the Commerce and Treasury departments actually write the regulations, a process that will begin in the next 30 days.
"Some of this will come down to the fine print when they actually write the regs," said James Williams, president of the non-profit advocacy group Engage Cuba. "It's extremely logistically fraught."
There were less fireworks than expected
Considering rumors had been swirling that Trump would sever U.S. ties to Cuba, the speech delivered in Miami's Little Havana was surprisingly low key. At several points peppered through the speech, Trump ceded the spotlight to others, at one point pausing for a rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" by Cuban-American violinist Luis Haza.
Proponents of the U.S. hardening its stance on Cuba saw this as Trump's moment to draw a line in the sand with Castro.
In fact, the administration did consider issuing an "all or nothing" ultimatum to the Cuban government in the speech, according to documents obtained exclusively by The Hilll, but opted against it. But the approach had its proponents.
"We called the Soviet Union the evil empire, all these things plus a strong investment in defense contributed to the demise in the Soviet Union," Mike Gonzalez, a Cuban-American and senior fellow at the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, told The Hill. "It was by calling them out constantly and not giving an inch to their oppressors and repressors."
Sen. Rubio took the spotlight
The White House ceded a share of the spotlight Friday to a surprising ally: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
Rubio's appearance with Trump would have been hard to imagine a year ago, when the two men traded bitter barbs when running for president, including during an infamous debate exchange about genitalia.
The White House pointed to Rubio – who also spoke before the president in Miami – as taking a "central" role in shaping the new policy.
Rubio has long lobbied for a tougher stance on Cuba, and told The Hill he was pleased with Trump's "targeted and specific" changes, such as Trump's new prohibition on financial transactions with the Cuban military and security services.
Rubio introduced similar legislation, the "Cuban Military Transparency Act," in 2015.
[Source: By Alicia Cohn, The Hill, Washington, 16Jun17]
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