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US scraps flights to nine Cuban destinations, adding to list of punishing sanctions

Starting Tuesday, it will be even harder for Americans to visit Cuba as a Trump administration mandate to US airlines to cut flights to nine destinations on the island takes effect.

Only US flights to Cuba’s capital Havana won’t be canceled. The measure, which was announced in October, adds to an increasing list of punishing sanctions meted out to Cuba. The Trump administration has called on the Cuban government to hold multi-party elections, stop harassing political opponents and end support to the Maduro regime in Venezuela.

US officials say they are canceling the flights to deprive the Cuban military, which oversees much of the island’s tourism industry, of badly needed income. Still, the measure will largely impact Cuban-Americans who take the direct flights to visit family on the island, often over the holidays.

While the Trump administration has disrupted decades of foreign policy norms throughout the world, few countries have experienced the whiplash that Cuba has.

President Barack Obama, on his historic trip to the communist-run island in March 2016, promised to “bury the last remnants of the Cold War in the Americas,” But just three years later, Trump’s then-National Security Advisor John Bolton threatened to “finish” what the CIA attempted with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion: topple the Castros.

Despite the two countries’ longstanding political differences, the US and Cuba have a shared interest in working together on issues like migration and drug interdiction, said William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert at American University in Washington.

“The relationship is very bad, probably as bad as it’s been since the Bush administration if not earlier,” LeoGrande said, “I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

The administration has tightened restrictions on Americans traveling to the island, banned US cruise ships from visiting, opened the way for people who lost property after the Cuban revolution to sue foreign companies in US courts for using those assets, and sanctioned ships bringing oil from socialist ally Venezuela to Cuba.

Preventing the ships carrying oil has dramatically worsened Cuba’s energy crisis and led to Cuban officials calling for greater rationing across the island. Long lines for fuel and shuttered gas stations have become a common sight across the island.

“As the Cuban saying goes, they want to cut the light, water and even the air we breathe,” Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said in a nationally televised address in September. “Why? To force concessions from us.”

So far those concessions don’t appear to be coming, leading to the possibility of even more sanctions.

Stalemate

As a candidate for president, Donald Trump promised Cuban-American conservatives in Miami that he would be tough on Havana, even though he had previously explored opening hotels in Cuba.

As the 2020 race for president nears, Trump will likely claim his actions have weakened the Cuban government. Even if they don’t have much to show for the tough-on-Cuba policy, administration officials already tout the hardline approach as a success.

“We rolled back the Obama administration’s cuddling up to Cuba by applying heavy new sanctions, we have recognized that engagement has not improved Cuba’s regime,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in December. “It hasn’t made it better. The human rights record was worse.”

But there is little indication that Cuba’s human rights record has changed during the Trump administration. US officials continue to blast the Cuban government for arbitrary arrests of government critics. Some dissident groups on the island say conditions have worsened for them as the US has increased tensions with the government.

In October, Cuban police arrested Jose Daniel Ferrer, the leader of the largest anti-government dissident group on the island. The Cuban government calls Ferrer a violent agitator while the Trump administration says he is a political prisoner. Despite calls from the Trump administration to free him, Ferrer remains jailed.

The stalemate is unlikely to change if Trump gets reelected; even if he decides he wants to deal with Cuba.

“The Cubans are not going to be receptive to Trump’s style of negotiation which is ‘Give me what I want or I am going to hurt you,’ ” said LeoGrande, the American University professor.

“The Cuban reaction to that is instinctively ‘Never,'” he said.

CNN