President Trump will tweak U.S. Cuba policy on Friday for the first time in his presidency, but won't alter many of the major trade, travel and diplomatic changes that former President Barack Obama made during his last few years in office.
Americans will still be able to travel to Cuba under approved categories without first checking with the federal government, according to White House officials. They can still bring back an unlimited number of souvenir items from the island nation, like rum and cigars. The embassy in Havana will remain open and won't be relegated back to "interests section" status. And commercial flights from the United States to Cuba will still operate.
Many of those changes were criticized by Republicans and even some Democrats as steps that gave too much away to Cuba in return for no promise of improved human rights or a move toward free and fair elections. But senior White House officials told reporters Thursday that while Trump wants to improve the "bad deal" Obama left them, much will remain the same.
"You can't put the genie back in the bottle 100 percent," one administration official said of Trump's changes to Obama's policy.
However, in a speech in Miami on Friday, Trump will announce some changes that U.S. officials say are aimed at reintroducing some political pressure on Cuba and making it harder for U.S. dollars to find their way into Cuba's military and intelligence operations.
One key change will be the elimination of "people-to-people" travel to Cuba on an individual basis. Obama allowed individuals to go to Cuba and assert on their own that their trip was educational in nature. But the Trump administration thinks that arrangement is a recipe for fraud that makes it too easy for people to visit Cuba as tourists, which is still illegal under U.S. law.
Supporters of that ban say tourism helps direct dollars to the repressive government on the island.
Senior White House officials told reporters Thursday that people-to-people travel in groups will still be allowed, under the theory that groups are more likely to stick to educational itineraries than individuals.
Officials indicated they would also do more to enforce the ban on tourism in Cuba. One official said people who go there for approved reasons should keep records and receipts of their stay in case they're audited by the Treasury Department, a sign that real audits may take place, something that was unheard of during the Obama administration.
Additionally, the rules will prohibit people from staying at hotels owned by the Cuban military, and the State Department will create a list of entities Americans should avoid. "The policy intent is to steer money away from the Cuban military and towards the Cuban people," the official said.
Along those lines, the new rule will direct the departments of Treasury and Commerce to stop all transactions with Cuban military, intelligence and security entities.
Trump's advisers emphasized that he is keeping a campaign promise by implementing the changes.
"The president vowed to reverse the Obama administration's policies toward Cuba that have enriched the Cuban military regime and increased the repression on the island," one official said. "It is a promise that President Trump made, and it's a promise that President Trump is keeping."
Trump's readjustment of the United States policy toward Cuba targets the "repressive members of the Cuban military government," as one official put it, and not the Cuban people.
In February, Trump ordered a full review of U.S. policy toward Cuba, which was led by the National Security Council. The secretaries of the Treasury, State, Commerce, Agriculture, Homeland Security and Transportation were all involved in the policy process, the officials said.
"The president has tasked his Cabinet to work together to find ways to improve what we consider President Obama's bad deal, and we're very excited about the result the president will unveil tomorrow," an official said.
Two Cuban-American Republican lawmakers who have pushed for a tougher stance against Cuba — Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart — were also involved in the process.
Officials said the tighter new policy should be seen by Cuba as pressure aimed at getting Cuba to expedite the release of U.S. fugitives living in Cuba, respect human rights, and move toward free and fair elections.
But other key elements of the Obama-era changes will also remain in place, an apparent sign that the strict limits on commerce and travel between the U.S. and Cuba appear to be fading.
The officials said Americans can still take commercial flights to Cuba if they travel under an approved category. Transactions relating to the U.S. embassy or the naval station in Guantanamo Bay will still be allowed.
Trump's new policy will also keep in place Obama's decision to end the "wet foot, dry foot" policy, which gave Cubans a path toward permanent residency if they arrived in the United States. Obama said at the time that the policy unfairly gave preference to one group of immigrants over others.
Officials made no mention of the settlement of claims for U.S. property on the island that Cuba expropriated in 1959 and 1960. The U.S. said Cuba owes the U.S. billions of dollars worth of claims, and presumably negotiations on that issue can continue as Obama directed before he left office.