US President Donald Trump is expected to announced on Friday a new policy on relations with Cuba to counter some of the decisions made by his predecessor Barack Obama.
The previous US administration had taken great efforts to normalize ties between Washington and Havana and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday acknowledged that increased cooperation helps both countries and provides opportunities for downtrodden Cubans.
But he also cited the “dark side” of Cuba’s regime, saying Trump’s review had concluded that some renewed business relations help fund the regime.
Trump may announce a return to restrictions on US tourists heading to Cuba and businesses signing partnerships with Cuban firms.
That would be meant to press Raul Castro’s government toward democratic reform and appease Cuban-American voters, many of whom fled communist rule.
Although many Americans support Obama’s decision and the US business community has welcomed moves to reopen trade, Trump’s hardline campaign rhetoric won him support among influential Cuban exiles in Florida.
The White House has not let much slip, but a radical turnaround such as a renewed break in diplomatic relations does not yet appear to be on the cards.
Tillerson told senators: “Cuba has failed to improve its own human rights record. Political opponents continue to be imprisoned. Dissidents continue to be jailed.”
“And as we’re enjoying the benefits on the economic and development side, are we inadvertently or directly providing financial support to the regime?”
“Our view is: ‘we are,'” he added, answering his own question.
That view resonates with Cuban-Americans such as Senator Marco Rubio, the son of anti-Castro immigrants, who has long warned that detente is moving too fast.
“I am confident the president will keep his commitment on Cuba policy by making changes that are targeted and strategic and which advance the Cuban people’s aspirations for economic and political liberty,” he said.
Trump accused Cuba of “cruel despotism” in May, vowing to support its people’s hopes for democracy.
But watchdog groups such as Human Rights Watch are skeptical of a return to the terms of the half-century Cold War stand-off, with its total trade embargo and no diplomatic ties.
“The previous administration was right to reject a policy that hurt ordinary Cubans and did nothing to advance human rights,” said Daniel Wilkinson, the group’s managing director for the Americas.
“The fact that Obama’s approach hasn’t led to political reform in Cuba after just a few years isn’t reason to return to a policy that proved a costly failure over many decades.”
On the economic front, business interests on both sides of the Florida Straits are wary of a return to a rigorous enforcement of the still-active US sanctions legislation.
Some 50 female Cuban entrepreneurs who have benefited from the island’s limited free-market opening have even written to Trump’s daughter and adviser Ivanka.
Inviting her to the island to see for herself, the women insist that “millions of Cubans” now benefit from increased tourism and trade.
“A setback in the relationship would bring with it the fall of many of our businesses and with this, the suffering of all those families that depend on them,” they wrote.
Yaquelin Betancourt, 43, who has been renting out rooms on Airbnb since it entered the Cuban market in 2015, said any decrease would be a severe blow.
“I depend on rent to survive,” she said. “If I had Trump in front of me now, I’d say: leave us in peace. This is a people who does not want conflict with the United States.”
The previous US administration softened many of the restrictions lifting American travel to Cuba, triggering a tourism boom.
Some 285,000 people visited the Caribbean country in 2016, up 74 percent over 2015, with Americans the third biggest group after Canadians and Cuban expats.
Engage Cuba, a group lobbying for an end to the embargo, estimates that 10,000 US jobs in aviation and the cruise business already depend on Cuba.
Cuban state news outlets have barely covered such reports but they have trickled through via illegal satellite television and conversations with relatives abroad. Earlier on Tuesday, state-run Radio Reloj declared: “Here, we are all serene.”
“From Eisenhower to Trump, there has never been a North American government looking at Havana with friendship,” the broadcaster said. “For this reason, neither announcements nor new measures will rob us our sleep.”
Many Cubans who have not felt much impact from the detente on their daily lives agree, and feel resigned. After all, the damaging US trade embargo remains in place and they are struggling to get by as the economy wrestles with falling exports and a decline in oil shipments from key ally Venezuela.
But for those in the tourism industry, that has benefited tangibly from a threefold increase in US visitors in the past two years, it is a different story.
Americans now make up some 7 percent of total visits – 15 percent including Cuban Americans – and a much larger proportion in Havana given many of Cuba’s tourists are Canadians on package trips who head directly to the beach resorts.
“Some 85 percent of our clients are Americans and they are the ones who consume most and pay the best,” said Yuri Barroso, doing promotion for a restaurant on Plaza Vieja, a square surrounded by elegantly restored colonial buildings.
Barroso said that if the number of US tourists were to fall again, it would cause “pain for many Cubans” who like him worked in the tourism sector and support their family.
The United States still officially prohibits its citizens from visiting Cuba as tourists.
However, travel between the two countries is easier now than it has been in more than half a century thanks to a “general license”, which allows travelers to claim they are visiting family or engaging in business, cultural, religious or educational activities.
Many Cubans, like Coba, had been banking on the number of American arrivals continuing to grow. A recent report by the Boston Consulting Group said US visitors to Cuba could rise by as much as sevenfold by 2025.