WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that U.S. travelers won't be allowed to bring home Cuban cigars and rum or stay in government-owned hotels there under new measures designed to help financially cripple the island's government. The action came as Trump is seeking to boost his appeal among Cuban Americans, a crucial Republican-leaning voting bloc in the all-important state of Florida.
Trump made the announcement at the White House as he considers choosing a Cuban American woman from Florida to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Trump said the new Treasury Department sanctions will ensure that U.S. dollars do not fund the Cuban government. He has been taking steps over the past four years to reinstate an economic blockade of Cuba and reverse the strategy of restoring diplomatic relations with the Caribbean island, the policy pursued by former President Barack Obama, a Democrat.
At a White House ceremony honoring 20 veterans of the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Trump assailed the Obama policy as a “weak, pathetic, one-sided deal” with Cuban leaders Fidel and Raul Castro — and linked it to his presidential rival, Joe Biden, who was Obama's vice president.
“I canceled the Obama-Biden sellout to the Castro regime,” Trump said.
He said U.S. sanctions will remain until Cuba releases all political prisoners, rights to free assembly and expression are respected, political parties are legalized and free elections are scheduled.
“Today we reaffirm our ironclad solidarity with the Cuban people and our eternal conviction that freedom will prevail over the sinister forces of communism and evil in many different forms," the president said. “Today we declare America's unwavering commitment to a free Cuba.”
Lawrence Ward, a partner in the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney, said Trump's action will make it nearly impossible for Americans to visit Cuba since the government owns or controls nearly all hotels. Americans are allowed to visit Cuba to see family, for humanitarian visits and for several other reasons expressly outlined by the U.S. government.
Ward predicted that even those areas of travel will become more difficult as Americans basically will be out of options for lodging on the island.
"Certainly these new sanctions will have some minor impact on the Cuban government and Cuba’s economy but there’s a fair argument that the actions are more symbolic and political given that the United States stands nearly alone in its sanctions as to Cuba,” Ward said in an email.
Democrats accused Trump of attempting to shape U.S. foreign policy for his political benefit.
“This is a desperate and hypocritical attempt by Trump to pander to Cuban-American voters in Florida," Democratic Party spokesperson Enrique Gutierrez said in an email. Gutierrez noted that Cuba has already closed its borders to Americans because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Gutierrez noted that Trump had sought in his past life as a businessman to do business in Cuba and seek trademarks there during the economic blockade.
Cuban-Americans are a crucial voting bloc in Florida, a state critical to Trump's reelection prospects.
Republicans have long dominated with these voters, who are known for a collective dislike of President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, over the Bay of Pigs invasion. The 1961 mission failed to meet its goal of toppling the communist government of Cuba's Fidel Castro.
One in every 5 of Florida’s 13.8 million voters is Hispanic and the Pew Research Center estimates that nearly a third, or more than 4.5 million of those, have roots in Cuba. Nearly 50,000 Cubans have become naturalized U.S. citizens between October 2016 and September 2018, according to the most recently available data from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Although researchers note that younger Cuban Americans and those who came to the U.S. in more recent decades favor restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, those who are older may have hardened their views.
In 2017, Trump announced the first step to roll back Obama’s Cuba thaw at a Miami theater named after Manuel Artime, the influential exile who launched the Bay of Pigs uprising. The president was joined then, as he was Wednesday, by members of the Assault Brigade 2506.
Trump met with a group of the veterans as far back as 1999, when he had presidential aspirations and visited Miami's Little Havana.
Trump recognized the Bay of Pigs veterans at the White House in November 2019, but Wednesday's ceremony came as Trump deliberates over whether to choose Barbara Lagoa, a U.S. appeals court judge of Cuban descent, as a possible successor to the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Lagoa is among five women Trump is considering to fill the seat.
Associated Press writers Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami and Kevin Freking in Washington contributed to this report.