Leahy decries Trump travel restrictions to Cuba

American and Cuban flags flown together in Havana. Photo by Patrick Leahy
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump announced a return to restrictions on travel and trade between America and Cuba. The new policy is a reversal of one of President Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievements.

Trump’s directive — issued Friday in Miami — makes good on a campaign pledge to crack down on Cuba. As part of the policy change, Americans will no longer be able to travel to Cuba on their own, and those who go with educational groups will face audits. In addition, American companies won’t be able to do business with government-controlled ventures, which includes much of the tourism economy.

“We do not want U.S. dollars to prop up a military monopoly that exploits and abuses the citizens of Cuba,” Trump said in the city’s Little Havana neighborhood, which is largely populated by exiles of the small island country, located just 90 miles off the Florida coast.

Trump’s actions don’t overturn all of the actions taken by the Obama administration. The respective embassies for the two countries will remain open, and direct flights between the two countries will continue. Trump has not yet nominated an ambassador to Cuba.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has been intimately involved in foreign policy issues regarding Cuba for decades, and he helped broker the diplomatic thaw achieved under Obama. On Friday, Leahy decried Trump’s decision, saying the president’s justification to crack down on Cuba for their humanitarian problems was disingenuous.

“President Trump has boasted of his admiration for the leaders of repressive and corrupt governments of countries that are ranked far less free than Cuba,” Leahy said in a statement.

Leahy told VTDigger that Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security advisor, consulted with him on Cuba policy, adding “but I don’t think Trump even begins to understand the complexity of this whole thing.”

“This is a hollow retreat from normalization that takes a swipe at Americans’ freedom to travel, at our national interest, and at the people of Cuba who yearn to reconnect with us – all just to score a political favor with a small and dwindling faction here at home,” Leahy said.

According to a CBS News/New York Times poll from 2016, a majority of Americans now support ending the embargo with Cuba, a policy enacted by President John F. Kennedy during the height of the Cold War.

There is also growing bipartisan consensus in Congress over the need to open up relations with Cuba and America. In late May, Leahy and U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., introduced the Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017, which overturns restrictions passed in 1996 and 2000 that prevent American citizens from traveling to Cuba. The bill has attracted 55 Senate co-sponsors of both parties, and Leahy told VTdigger Friday that it would easily pass the Senate, with close to 70 votes of support.

“The president has needlessly provoked a confrontation with Congress on behalf of a shrinking minority who – for reasons that have nothing to do with our national interests – favor turning the clock back to the failed policy of the past,” Leahy said.

Two of the most vocal supporters of Trump’s policy are two Republican politicians from Florida: U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.

Luke Albee, a former chief of staff for Leahy who now serves as a senior advisor for Engage Cuba, called the deal “a political payoff to two politicians from South Florida, a jaundice deal that’s going to set us back.”

Leahy has visited the island frequently over the years.

He and his wife, Marcelle, first dined with Fidel Castro in Havana in 1999. In 2000, Leahy and U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd helped transfer custody of Elian Gonzalez — a shipwrecked six-year-old Cuban boy — from his Miami relatives to his father on the island. Leahy friend and fellow Vermonter Greg Craig represented the boy’s father.

“Family values are the most important values in our country,” Leahy brusquely told reporters after the transfer brought a fair amount of political blowback. “We lost sight — or many lost sight — of the fact that one of those family values was to have a child back with his father. And that family value has been carried out.”

More than a decade after that dinner, Leahy’s ties to Cuba made him a trusted source for the Obama administration in the early stages of negotiations with Castro’s brother, Raul.

The talk focused on renewing diplomatic ties with Cuba, and swapping prisoners. The Cubans wanted the return of members of the Miami Five, a cadre of intelligence officers who were arrested in 1998 and charged with espionage. America wanted Alan Gross, a former USAID worker accused of spying.

Negotiations were tense, and Leahy often served as the line of communication between Castro and Obama in the leadup to the thaw. On December 17, 2014, President Obama officially announced a diplomatic thaw between the two nations.

That same day, a prisoner exchange took place. One plane left Andrews Air Force base with the remaining three imprisoned members of the Miami Five while Leahy and other leaders took a separate aircraft to Cuba to pick up Alan Gross.

Leahy said the diplomatic thaw has allowed for an economic and political transition in the country, adding that one in five Cubans is now employed in an emerging private sector. In December, Leahy hosted Cuban entrepreneurs who spoke of how positive the thaw had been for the economy.

“A few years ago, a new era of dreams in Cuba began,” said Yamina Vicente, who owns a wedding planning company in Cuba. “I hope that my children will be able to dream too.”

Under the thaw, Cuba and America cooperated on a series of security and commercial issues, and Leahy said that, as America sacrifices its relationship with the world, other more hostile actors would step in to fill the void.

“Russia wants to get back in the country, not because they love the Cubans but because they want to show Americans they are sitting 90 miles off the coast,” Leahy said. “They are offering to build a Cuban train system, something the United States could do far better. They’ve forgiven billions of dollars of debt. But russia doesn’t do this altruistically, they want a foothold. China will become more involved, too. We are giving our influence away to them.”

Leahy said he would continue fighting for diplomatic engagement with the small island, and that he hoped Trump would appoint an effective diplomat to the country.

“I’d like to see a good ambassador down there, not an ideologue,” Leahy said. “But that’s going to be difficult.

Albee, whose organization lobbies for an opening of relations with Cuba, acknowledged there were roadblocks under the current Republican leadership.

“When you have the Senate Majority Leader (Mitch McConnell) and the House Speaker (Paul Ryan) against us, it’s going to be hard,” Albee said. “Hard, but not impossible.”

Out of his seven or eight trips to Cuba, Leahy said one of his most memorable was when the American embassy was reopened in Cuba in August 2015.

“I remember the day our flag went up at the American embassy,” Leahy recalled. “There were enormous cheers from the street, from Cubans, as the flag went up the pole. It was very emotional.”

Patrick Leahy, Cuba
Sen. Patrick Leahy in Cuba. Courtesy photo

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  • Anne L Hilliard

    There go his free vacations, compliments of those nice Castro boys. Oh, and you, the taxpayer.

  • Thomas Sperry

    What is with Leahy’s obsession with the Castros and Cuba. This article also failed to mention Trump is open to renegotiating, but Cuba has to send back cop killer Joanne Chesimard; Leahy never mentions her either.

  • Kevin Jones

    Thank you Senator Leahy for your continued leadership on improving relations with Cuba. As you note President Trump’s arguments are just more misleading propaganda from the Whitehouse and he is harming both US citizens, our economy, our strategic interests and unfortunately the Cuban people with these politically motivated and short sighted actions. Instead we should remove all travel restrictions as you and your bipartisan majority legislation proposes. Then we should end the embargo which is only harming our long term interests and making us look foolish internationally. We need Senator Leahy and our Vermont delegation’s leadership now more than ever.

    • Jim Manahan

      Wait, what? Leahy and leadership?

    • Peter Chick

      I hope you are not including (I) Bernie. Not much leadership here either.

    • Thank you for your measured, thoughtful, and informed response.

  • David Bell

    As opposed to what we already get from right-less Chinese or Vietnamese in forced labor camps?

    • Anne L Hilliard

      Actually, the same. Thank you President Trump for working to bring those jobs back home.

  • Steve Baker

    Now the UN, they’re a Great arbiter of Human Rights!

    • Dennis Works

      That’s it? You complain about the UN’s record on human rights? Actually, the United Nations Human Rights Council has an excellent record regarding human rights. Just because some of their work doesn’t bear the final results most would like, that’s not the fault of the council itself – it’s mostly the fault of the nations with veto powers, including the U.S. And what about the other organizations I mentioned? They too have been critical of the U.S. embargo.