US tightens embargo, banning cruise ship calls

The US Administration has further tightened its embargo on Cuba by introducing measures that effectively ban all US cruise ship calls as well as travel by sailboat, recreational craft and private aircraft.

On 4 June the Trump Administration announced that it would no longer issue licences for group travel to Cuba for US people-to-people educational purposes. The effect was to end, the following day, the growing number of US cruise calls and other forms of non-commercial travel to Cuba. Commercial airline flights are unaffected by the new measures, as are licenced visits by university groups, academic researchers, journalists, or for professional meetings.

Announcing the new sanctions, the US Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, cited both political and economic reasons for doing so. “Cuba continues to play a destabilising role in the Western Hemisphere, providing a communist foothold in the region and propping up US adversaries in places like Venezuela and Nicaragua by fomenting instability, undermining the rule of law, and suppressing democratic processes.” “This Administration has made a strategic decision to reverse the loosening of sanctions and other restrictions on the Cuban regime. These actions will help to keep US dollars out of the hands of Cuban military, intelligence, and security services”, he said.

Responding, the Cuban Government issued a formal statement in which it said, ‘Cuba will not let itself be intimidated, nor distracted from the essential and urgent tasks of the development of our economy and the construction of socialism’. It also repudiated ‘in the strongest terms, the measures announced’. Noting that, apart from the damage the measures do to the Cuban economy, it also said that they ‘prevent the people of the United States from knowing the Cuban reality’ and disregard the majority opinion of US citizens.

In its official statement, the government of Cuba also observed that that the US National Security Advisor, John Bolton had ‘managed to take over the foreign policy of the United States towards the Western Hemisphere’ and said that this constituted ‘the main threat to the peace and stability of the entire region’. It also expressed its continuing solidarity with Venezuela, rejecting what it described as ‘the slanderous accusation that Cuba intervenes militarily in Venezuela’.

Commenting on Twitter as US the announcement was made, Bolton, said “The Administration has advanced the President’s Cuba policy by ending ‘veiled tourism’ to Cuba and imposing restrictions on vessels. We will continue to take actions to restrict the Cuban regime’s access to US dollars.” The Cuban American Senator, Marco Rubio (R-Florida) said: “The United States must use all tools available under US law to counter the Cuban regime’s deceitful activities to undermine US policy.”

The overall effect of the new US measures has been for all US cruise lines to redirect their ships elsewhere (see United States section below).

The decision is a significant economic blow to the Cuban economy and to the country’s many small non-state enterprises that provide tourism related services to visitors. US cruise tourism has been increasing significantly with 142,721 people arriving by cruise ship in the first four months of this year alone, a 300% plus increase over the same period in 2018. According to official Cuban figures, more than 0.6m US citizens in all travelled to Cuba in 2018, mostly on cruises. This figure does not include the 0.5m Cuban Americans who visited family and friends in Cuba last year.

Sailings to Cuba have proved enormously popular as travel by cruise ship enabled US travellers to overcome hard to interpret US Treasury regulations as the  cruise companies were able to offer a packaged, legal and certain way for US citizens to travel to Cuba.

The new restrictions represent a part of the Trump Administration’s decision to roll back the Obama era policy of détente while also seeking to appeal to voters in South Florida with links to Cuba and Venezuela.

The Miami Herald recently reported a senior US official as saying that more sanctions are in the pipeline ‘to increase the “cost” for the Cuban Government of its support to the Maduro regime’ in Venezuela.

Commenting on the new measures, Martha Honey, the Executive Director of the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), a Washington based non-profit organisation that has taken a particular interest in sustainable travel to Cuba, said that the decision was “a devastating blow to millions of Cubans as well as to US travel companies, airlines, and cruise lines”.  It would, she said, “make life much more difficult for average Cubans and will be deeply felt by Cuba’s burgeoning private sector – the very entrepreneurs that the Trump Administration claims to support.”

Honey also noted that the decision will have a far-reaching impact on US-Cuban relations, as educational exchanges had become critical for creating meaningful connections and fostering understanding between American travellers and the Cuban people.

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