Trump restricts travel to Cuba, reinstates embargo; Arkansas officials oppose the moves

by George Jared (gjared@talkbusiness.net) 491 views 

President Donald Trump on Friday rolled back executive orders by then President Barack Obama that allowed expanded travel and trade with Cuba. The new order restricts travel and returns the decades old trade embargo with the communist controlled country.

The announcement came the same day Cuban President Raul Castro announced he is stepping down, and a new leader will be elected in October. The U.S. will keep its embassy open, and continue to keep diplomatic channels open.

“We will enforce the ban on tourism. We will enforce the embargo,” Trump said.

The president cited the “true and brutal nature” of the Castro regime as a reason to rescind orders signed by President Obama in 2015. Obama said at the time the decades long isolation policies hadn’t worked. Trump told several anecdotal stories to illustrate the tyranny brought onto the Cuban people since Castro’s brother, Fidel Castro, first came to power in 1959.

Free elections, the release of political prisoners, the formation of legitimate political parties and other stipulations will have to be met before the restrictions and embargo are lifted, Trump said. He encouraged the Cuban government to come to the bargaining table to negotiate a new deal. The tourism industry in Cuba is largely controlled by the military, and Trump said he didn’t want American dollars pouring into military coffers.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson praised part of Trump’s actions, but also asked the administration to be open to a “constructive policy” with respect to trade.

“As Governor, I have continually stated that lifting the Cuban embargo isn’t an all-or-nothing approach. The Cuban government has violated human rights for more than 50 years, and I applaud the president’s efforts to maintain political pressure on a regime that stands in contrast with the very values of the United States. As President Trump pointed out in his speech earlier today, he intends to keep the U.S. embassy open ‘in hope that our countries can forge a much stronger’ relationship in the future. This is the right decision. I would urge the Administration and Congress to focus on constructive policy with Cuba that would benefit Americans, especially Arkansas-based agriculture, by lifting the credit restrictions on agriculture. There is a tremendous opportunity for success in Cuba for Arkansas farmers, and the lifting of credit restrictions on agriculture is a logical first step.”

RISK TO NATIONAL SECURITY
However, other lawmakers and agriculture business leaders in Arkansas condemned the move. Cuba has a $2 billion agriculture import market and rice and poultry are its top imports. Arkansas is the leading rice producing state in the nation, and is among the top poultry producers.

Arkansas Rice Federation Executive Director Ben Noble told Talk Business & Politics this was a regressive move. He chided the president for ignoring the plight of rural American farmers who would benefit from better relations with Cuba.

“Restoring normalized trade relations will continue to be a priority for our industry and our state. It is unfortunate that an administration elected largely by rural America is not making trade decisions that could benefit those individuals the most,” Noble said. “Not only is this a lost opportunity to sell our products, it is a missed opportunity to export our culture, values and capitalism to the Cuban people. It’s a shame for an administration that advocates for the importance of trade to stop the opportunities that lie.”

Arkansas Farm Bureau President Randy Veach also criticized the decision. Veach said his organization supports efforts by Boozman and Crawford.

“We believe this action by President Trump is a step in the wrong direction. … There is no better diplomacy than making food available in another country,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, has been a vocal advocate of increased trade with Cuba, and has a bill before congress that would allow Cubans to buy agriculture products with credit. Cubans can only buy products with cash due to sanctions. Crawford urged the president to reconsider his decision, and said he will work with him to formulate a compromise. The congressman previously told Talk Business & Politics he was hopeful Trump wouldn’t take this stance.

“I strongly oppose President Trump’s decision to reinstate a failed, outdated, and isolationist posture towards Cuba. This policy change is not just a missed opportunity for rural America, which would greatly benefit from increased access to the island’s $2B agricultural imports market,” Crawford said. “This policy shift also poses an unjustifiable risk to our national security, as further U.S. disengagement opens up opportunities for countries like Iran, Russia, North Korea, and China to gain influence on an island 90 miles off our coast.”

Crawford said Trump’s decision will inhibit the country’s ability to export American values into Cuba, and will hinder attempts to curtail human rights abuses.

‘STEP BACKWARD, NOT FORWARD’
U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., criticized the president’s new policy. Boozman said he understands Trump’s desire to bring democracy to the island, but this outdated approach will never work.

“We ran this play over and over again for fifty years and the results have not changed. By rolling back reforms that have benefited U.S. citizens, everyday Cubans and our economy, we are taking a step backward, not forward,” Boozman said. “It would be more effective to continue an open line of communication and working relationship with a government in need of democratic assistance, instead of shutting them out. Through this approach, we not only trade goods, but ideas. The two go hand-in-hand. I will continue to work with my colleagues to promote policies that help the U.S remain competitive and create jobs at home, while pushing for human rights and democratic change in Cuba.”

There’s a chance the Cuba credit legislation might not be impacted. Boozman spokesman Patrick Creamer told Talk Business & Politics the ag credit bills don’t necessarily run counter to what the president signed today, but he wasn’t sure if Trump would sign legislation that loosened restrictions he just put back into place.

One approach to possible passage could be to include the bill as an amendment to one of the spending bills, as the senator has done in the past, but that is just one way he is considering moving forward, Creamer said.

“Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and others within the administration are open to, and in some cases supportive of, the end goal that the senator’s bill seeks to accomplish so he will continue to engage them on this issue as well. Senator Boozman remains committed to helping American agricultural producers compete in the Cuban market,” Creamer said.

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