June 16, 2017 / 11:32 AM / a month ago

Cubans say crestfallen that Trump rolling back detente

U.S. President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks on "Apprenticeship and Workforce of Tomorrow" initiatives and signs an executive order at the White House in Washington, U.S. June 15, 2017.Eric Thayer

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cubans said they were crestfallen to be returning to an era of frostier relations with the United States as the news spread that U.S. President Donald Trump was set to revert parts of the historic detente with Cuba.

Trump will on Friday announce a plan to tighten rules on Americans traveling to Communist-run Cuba and significantly restrict U.S. firms from doing business with Cuban enterprises controlled by the military, White House officials said.

    "It hurts to be going backwards. To roll back the engagement will only manage to isolate us from the world," said Havana resident Marta Deus, who will try to tune into Trump's speech in Miami, the heartland of Cuban exiles.

Deus recently set up an accountancy firm and courier service, to cater to a private sector that has flourished since a landmark agreement two and a half years ago between former U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro to normalize relations between the former Cold War foes.

"We need clients, business, we need the economy to move and by isolating Cuba, they will only manage to hurt many Cuban families and force companies to close," she said.

The 2014 deal sparked widespread euphoria in Cuba and raised hopes for an improvement in its ailing economy. 

An increased arrival of U.S. tourists thanks to eased restrictions fuelled a boom in tourism, especially in Havana, creating demand for more BnBs, restaurants, taxis and tour guides in the fledgling private sector.

But critics say the opening failed to improve rights on the island. Trump will justify his partial reversal of Obama’s measures to a large extent on those grounds, the White House officials said, and some Cuban dissidents back his tougher stance, saying repression has worsened since the detente.

    Cuban authorities have stepped up their detentions of activists, often confiscating their telephones and laptops, but they have also been coming down with a heavy hand on self- employed Cubans who appear to be empowering themselves.

    "When the Obama administration stopped condemning human rights violations in Cuba, the regime here said 'look we can do this and nothing happens, so we can continue repressing more forcefully'," said Jose Daniel Ferrer, who leads the Patriotic Union of Cuba, the country's largest dissident group.

    Ferrer said his group had 53 activists currently imprisoned due to their political views. Other dissidents agree repression has worsened but say rolling back the detente, which will hurt ordinary Cubans, is not the solution.

    "It will probably not have any benefit in terms of human rights," said Eliecer Avila, the leader of the opposition youth group Somos Mas.

    The Cuban government has withstood the U.S. trade embargo for more than a half century and will not make any political concessions to the United States due to economic pressure, said Carlos Alzugaray, a retired Cuban diplomat.

    "I am concerned it will affect the private sector quite a bit and much more than the Cuban government," he said.

    Without doubt it will impact those in the tourism industry that have benefited from a threefold increase in U.S. visits in the last two years, although it is unclear just how much.

    "It's going to really hurt me because the majority of my clients are from the United States," said Enrique Montoto, 61, who rents rooms on U.S. online home-rental marketplace Airbnb, which expanded into Cuba in 2015.

    "With things going to pot, I'll have to tighten my belt."

    This new setback to the Cuban economy will come at a time when it is already wrestling with falling oil shipments from crisis-stricken ally Venezuela and a decline in exports.

    "This is another blow for Cubans and it will hurt our pockets obviously," said Martha Garcia, 51. "With the United States, there is no tranquility."

Additional reporting by Marc Frank in Havana and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Michael Perry

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