US bans cruise ships from Cuba in warning over support for Venezuela regime

Harriet Alexander
A classic car passes in front of the cruise terminal in Havana on June 4 - REX

Donald Trump has banned US cruise ships from sailing to Cuba, reversing three years of policy and tightening up additional travel restrictions for Americans to punish Havana for supporting the Venezuelan government.

Multiple cruise companies - among them Carnival and Royal Caribbean - said on Wednesday that they were ending their Cuba routes, with immediate effect.

The policy was announced on Tuesday, and came into effect on Wednesday.

Carnival said the guests currently aboard its Carnival Sensation cruise that set sail on June 3, would now stop in Mexican island Cozumel on Thursday instead of Havana, adding that the guests would receive a $100 onboard credit for the inconvenience.

Cruise ships sailing from the US returned to Cuba for the first time in 2016, amid the thawing in Cold War-era relations overseen by Barack Obama. Mr Trump has made undoing the thaw a pillar of his presidency, and the crisis in Venezuela has given further incentive to confront Cuba, which strongly supports Nicolas Maduro.

The US treasury department on Tuesday also banned group educational travel, knwon as "people-to-people visits", taking aim at the most common ways US tourists and Cuban-Americans visit the Caribbean island.

Private yachts are also now banned from travelling to Cuba from the US.

John Bolton said the US would restrict tourist dollars used to prop up Maduro Credit:  Paul Grover

The move could constitute a heavy hit on Cuba, which saw more than 250,000 US visitors in the first four months of 2019, almost double the figure from a year earlier.

"The United States holds the Cuban regime accountable for its repression of the Cuban people, its interference in Venezuela, and its direct role in the man-made crisis led by Nicolas Maduro," the State Department said in a news release.

"Empowered by Cuba, he has created a humanitarian disaster that destabilizes the region."

John Bolton, the White House national security adviser and one of the strongest Cuba-Venezuela hawks, said the aim was to end what the administration considers "veiled tourism" to Cuba.

"We will continue to take actions to restrict the Cuban regime's access to US dollars," he said on Twitter.

The Cuban government condemned the move, which could cost the country's economy tens of millions of dollars a year in lost income.

"They seek to stifle the economy and damage the standard of living of Cubans to wrest political concessions," said Bruno Rodriguez, the Cuban foreign minister.

"They'll fail again."

Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, one of the US agencies which arranges visits to Cuba, accused the Trump administration of playing politics by trying to appease conservative anti-Havana Cuban immigrants in Florida, an important election swing state where they carry significant political weight.

"This political grandstanding aimed at Florida in the run up to the 2020 elections is so unfortunate for the millions of Cubans that will feel the crunch from less US visitors," he said.

"This has nothing to do with empowering the Cuban people and has everything to do with empowering a handful of people in Florida that have never even been to Cuba."

Tessia Aral, the owner of ABC Charters in Miami, said it could have a huge impact on her business, which arranged trips to Cuba for about 10,000 people last year.

She said it will hurt not only companies like hers but also those of the many entrepreneurs in Cuba who have built businesses to serve tourists.

"The people making the rules have never been to Cuba. They don't know how things have changed" in recent years, she said.

"What they are doing is counter-productive. I believe it's really going to hurt the private entrepreneurs in Cuba - all the private restaurants, all the private homes" who serve tourists.