National polls suggest that Donald Trump’s chances of being
elected president on Nov. 8 are becoming increasingly slim, but for the growing
segment of the travel industry that is investing in newly opened Cuba, those
slim chances present a significant threat to business interests.
While campaigning in Florida last week, the Republican
presidential nominee tweeted that if elected, he would roll back the recent
normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
“The people of Cuba have struggled too long,” he tweeted.
“Will reverse Obama’s Executive Orders and concessions towards Cuba until
freedoms are restored.”
For her part, his opponent, Democratic presidential nominee
Hillary Clinton, has said that she would “work with Congress to lift the
“First, we should help more Americans go to Cuba,” Clinton
said in a 2015 speech. “If Congress won’t act to do this, I would use executive
authority to make it easier for more Americans to visit the island to support
private business and engage with the Cuban people.”
At the moment, travel is the industry most invested in
Cuba’s opening, with America’s largest hotel, airline and cruise companies all
launching operations there this year.
It was no coincidence that when President Obama landed in
Havana last March, marking the first visit to the island by a sitting U.S.
president in 88 years, the CEOs of Marriott International, Airbnb and Carnival
Corp. were all there, too, and inked deals or received approval for future Cuba investments
during or within days of the trip.
Many industry experts have said that the more U.S.
businesses become entrenched in Cuba, the less likely it will be that a new
administration would roll back the changes Obama has made.
During Obama’s visit, Carnival Corp. signed its long-awaited
agreement to begin cruises to the island with its Fathom social-impact brand,
and the U.S. Treasury Department approved Airbnb’s plans to expand its Cuba
listings to non-U.S. travelers.
Two days prior to the trip, Treasury had granted approval to
Marriott International and Starwood Hotels and Resorts to operate in Cuba.
Then, in August, the first commercial flights between the
U.S. and Cuba in more than 50 years took off.
In stark contrast to Trump’s remarks, Obama said during his
Havana visit that relaxed travel restrictions were already helping the Cuban
“Since we’ve made it easier to travel to Cuba, a lot more
Americans are visiting the island, you may have noticed,” Obama said in Havana.
“More Americans coming to Cuba means more customers for your businesses. More
Americans using the dollar will mean that they will spend more, as well. There
will be more channels for you to import supplies and equipment. More Americans
will be able to buy your arts, crafts, food, Cuban-origin software as well as,
of course, Cuban rum and cigars.”
Trump’s Cuba tweet might well have been intended to garner
support from Cuban-Americans. Polls show him trailing Clinton in Florida, a
crucial swing state. Nationally, surveys have found that Americans
overwhelmingly support Obama’s decision to relax Cuba restrictions.
William LeoGrande, a professor at American University who
has written extensively on U.S.-Cuba relations, said last week that whether
Trump would actually reverse Obama’s rollback cannot be predicted because the
candidate has been inconsistent when it comes to Cuba policy.
“When Obama announced the opening in December 2014, Trump
was the only Republican presidential candidate who said it made sense after 50
years — but he’d have gotten a better deal,” LeoGrande said. “Then in Miami a
few weeks ago, trying to appeal to Cuban-Americans, he said he would close the
embassy unless Cuba made concessions on human rights and religious freedom. Now
he’s declaring flatly that he would roll back everything Obama has done. As
president, he would have the power to do that, but there’s really no way to
predict what he would actually do.”
What strikes some people as incongruous is that travel and
hospitality are the businesses most entrenched in Cuba, while at the same time,
the first hotel executive to be a presidential nominee is threatening to
reverse the policies that enabled those companies to operate there.
“As a businessperson you’d think if he were responding to
the business community, he would leave open the doors that Obama has opened,”
LeoGrande said. “But on the other hand, there are a lot of conservative
Republicans who have opposed the president’s policy.”
Carnival Corp., when asked if it was concerned about Trump’s
tweet, said in a statement, “We remain optimistic that the progress we have
made in Cuba will continue.”
Trump’s contradictory positions on Cuba apparently date back
to the late 1990s.
According to a Newsweek report last month, in 1998 Trump’s
hotel company, then called Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, spent about
$68,000 investigating potential investments in Cuba, expenditures that would
have violated U.S. law at the time.
The news magazine reported that Trump executives visited the
island and met with officials there about potential business operations,
funneling the money spent on the trip through a consulting firm that instructed
the executives to make the trip look like a charitable effort.
Shortly after the alleged trip, Trump launched his first
presidential campaign, in Miami in 1999, where he is seen in a video at an
event hosted by the Cuban American National Foundation, an organization of
Cuban exiles, saying he would maintain the embargo and spend no money in Cuba
as long as Castro was in power.
“Putting money and investing money in Cuba right now doesn’t
go to the people of Cuba,’’ Trump told the crowd. “It goes in the pockets of
Fidel Castro. He’s a murderer. He’s a killer. He’s a bad guy in every respect
and, frankly, the embargo must stand if for no other reason than, if it does
stand, he will come down.”
“One month he was trying to see if he could open a casino in
Cuba, and the next month he was saying nobody should invest in Cuba as long as
Castro is in power,” LeoGrande said. “There is no way of knowing what he is
going to do” if elected.
An email requesting a response from the Trump campaign was