Death of Fidel Castro May Pressure Donald Trump on Cuba Promises
President-elect could face pushback from some companies regarding his
By FELICIA SCHWARTZ and CAROL E. LEE
Updated Nov. 27, 2016 11:14 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON — The death of Fidel Castro is putting unexpected pressure on
President-elect Donald Trump to follow through on earlier promises to
reverse the recent openings to Cuba made by President Barack Obama.
While Mr. Trump could undo Mr. Obama's efforts, which were implemented
using executive authority, he could face pushback from U.S. companies
now deeply invested in Cuba under the current administration's policy.
Those companies include major airlines, hotel operators and technology
providers, while big U.S. phone carriers have signed roaming agreements
on the island.
Mr. Trump's top aides said Sunday that he would demand the release of
political prisoners held in Cuba and push the government to allow more
religious and economic freedoms. Reince Priebus, Mr. Trump's incoming
White House chief of staff, said the president-elect "absolutely" would
reverse Mr. Obama's policies if he didn't get what he wanted from Cuba.
"We're not going to have a unilateral deal coming from Cuba back to the
United States without some changes in their government," Mr. Priebus
said Sunday on Fox News. "Repression, open markets, freedom of religion,
political prisoners—these things need to change in order to have open
and free relationships, and that's what president-elect Trump believes,
and that's where he's going to head."
Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), a critic of Mr. Obama's opening, said
Sunday on CBS that he hopes Mr. Trump will examine Mr. Obama's changes
to U.S.-Cuba policy and consider whether they foster democracy.
Ana Rosa Quintana, an expert on Latin America at the conservative
Heritage Foundation, said she hopes Mr. Trump will roll back regulations
that allow U.S. companies to interact with state-run entities in Cuba.
Mr. Obama announced in December 2014 that his administration had reached
a deal with Cuba to begin to normalize relations. Since then, embassies
have reopened in both countries, and the U.S. has loosened trade and
travel restrictions to Cuba.
Despite bipartisan support, Congress has refused to lift the economic
embargo on Cuba, which administration officials have said is necessary
to fully normalize relations.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), a co-sponsor of a bipartisan bill to
lift the embargo, said until Republican leaders allow a vote on the
legislation its supporters are "stymied."
That gives Mr. Trump broad authority to scale back U.S. relations with
Cuba, said lawyers and former officials who specialize in sanctions policy.
Regulations that allow U.S. companies to deal with Cuban state-owned
entities seem the most vulnerable, such as one that allows U.S.
businesses to use state-owned distributors as middlemen for deliveries
to the private sector, the former officials and lawyers said.
Peter Harrell, a former senior official at the State Department who
worked on sanctions in the Obama administration, said he expected Mr.
Trump would "pull back some of that dealing with the Cuban state while
allowing travel and private enterprise to go forward."
Another measure Mr. Trump could reverse is Mr. Obama's decision earlier
this year to allow so-called people-to-people travel to Cuba without a
tour group, a move that essentially lifted the travel ban and that
critics believe went too far. According to the State Department, 700,000
Americans visited Cuba in 2015, which officials said was an increase
from previous years.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see that rescinded," said Robert Muse, a
Washington-based lawyer who advises companies on doing business in Cuba.
Republican opponents of Mr. Obama's Cuba policy—including Mauricio
Claver-Carone, who is on Mr. Trump's transition team at the Treasury
Department—have been critical of a deal Starwood Hotels signed with the
Cuban government earlier this year, under which the company is running a
hotel once owned by the tourism arm of the Cuban military. Mr. Harrell
said Mr. Trump might rethink that authorization or allowing similar
licenses in the future.
Jeff Flaherty, a spokesman for Marriott International Inc., which now
owns Starwood, said it was premature to assess what effect a Trump
administration would have on its business in Cuba.
"It is too early to know precisely what it could mean for businesses
that have invested in Cuba and are providing opportunities for the Cuban
people, but we remain interested in being part of those conversations,"
Mr. Claver-Carone didn't respond to requests for comment.
In addition to corporations seeking to invest in Cuba, Mr. Obama's
policy has strong support in another Republican stronghold: the farming
Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said he voted for
Mr. Trump but didn't want to see the next administration take any steps
that would put U.S. farmers at a further disadvantage in the Cuban market.
"Every other country in the world has diplomatic and trade relations
with Cuba, and what we don't want to do is lose that market share to the
European Union, Brazil, Argentina," Mr. Paap said, adding that U.S.
market share in Cuba has decreased in recent years as other countries
are able to provide better financing.
The White House has been working to facilitate new investments in Cuba
by U.S. companies to try to further entrench business and trade ties
between the two countries before Mr. Obama leaves office, with new
announcements expected in coming weeks. It is unclear how Mr. Castro's
death might affect those efforts.
The potential blowback from U.S. business has been the White House's de
facto insurance policy on Mr. Obama's approach to Cuba.
In March Mr. Obama became the first sitting U.S. president in 88 years
to visit Cuba, and many administration officials have gone to the island
to advance economic and cultural ties.
Matt Miller, an American Airlines spokesman, said the company is
proceeding "full steam ahead" with plans to expand its service from the
U.S. to Cuba this week to include flights to Havana from Miami and
Charlotte, N.C. U.S. commercial flights to Cuba resumed in September.
To further entrench Mr. Obama's policy, administration officials also
are relying on lawmakers in agriculture states poised to benefit from
trade with Cuba and a growing number of Cuban Americans who support
policy changes that loosen travel restrictions and allow them to send
more money to family members living there.
Rep. Tom Emmer (R., Minn.), a strong proponent of lifting the
embargowho supported Mr. Trump in the election, said he hopes the
Trump administration will seize on the opportunity of Mr. Castro's death
to further normalize ties.
"Hopefully the Trump administration will build off what has already
been created, understanding that it is a new day in the Western
Hemisphere," he said in an interview.
Paul Johnson, co-chair of the U.S. agriculture coalition for Cuba, said
he isn't yet worried that Mr. Trump would reverse the momentum from Mr.
Obama's policy because "rural America clearly supports normalization of
trade with Cuba" and wants to end the U.S. embargo.
Dan Restrepo, a former Latin America adviser to Mr. Obama who is now a
fellow at the Center for American Progress, said U.S. companies that
invested in Cuba under Mr. Obama's policy could explore legal action
against the government if Mr. Trump reversed measures that allowed them
to operate there.
U.S. companies "now have a vested interest and they are going to be part
of any debate" and that "broadens the political conversation," he said.
Write to Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com and Carol E. Lee
Source: Death of Fidel Castro May Pressure Donald Trump on Cuba Promises
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