By Zachary Fagenson, Matt Spetalnick and Lesley Wroughton
MIAMI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Wednesday imposed new sanctions and other punitive measures on Cuba and Venezuela, seeking to ratchet up U.S. pressure on Havana to end its support for Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolas Maduro.
Speaking to a Cuban exile group in Miami, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said the United States was targeting Cuba’s military and intelligence services, including a military-owned airline, for additional sanctions and was tightening travel and trade restrictions against the island.
Bolton’s speech followed the State Department’s announcement on Wednesday that it was lifting a long-standing ban against U.S. citizens filing lawsuits against foreign companies that use properties seized by Cuba’s Communist government since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.
President Donald Trump’s decision, which the State Department said could unleash hundreds of thousands of legal claims worth tens of billions of dollars, drew swift criticism from European and Canadian allies, whose companies have significant interests in Cuba.
The Cuban government, which could be hindered in attracting new foreign investment, denounced it as “an attack on international law.”
Taking aim at Venezuela, Bolton said the United States was also imposing sanctions on the country’s central bank to prohibit access to dollars by an institution he described as crucial to keeping Maduro in power. Bolton also announced new sanctions on Nicaragua.
In a state television address, Maduro called the sanctions “totally illegal.”
“Central banks around the world are sacred, all countries respect them,” Maduro said, adding that the central bank would “confront and defeat” the sanctions. “To me the empire looks crazy, desperate.”
While accusing Cuba of propping up Maduro with thousands of security force members in the country, Bolton also warned “all external actors, including Russia,” against deploying military assets to support the Venezuelan leader.
“The United States will consider such provocative actions a threat to international peace and security in the region,” Bolton said, noting that Moscow recently sent in military flights carrying 35 tons of cargo and a hundred personnel.
However, Cuba appears unlikely to be budged by demands to dump Maduro, a longtime ally of Havana, and Maduro has also shown little sign of losing the loyalty of his military despite tough oil-related U.S. sanctions on the OPEC nation.
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel responded defiantly. “No one will rip the (fatherland) away from us, neither by seduction nor by force,” he said on Twitter. “We Cubans do not surrender.”
ROLLING BACK OBAMA-ERA DETENTE
Amid Venezuela’s political and economic crisis, opposition leader Juan Guaido invoked the constitution in January to assume the interim presidency. The United States and most Western countries have backed Guaido as head of state. Maduro, backed by Cuba, Russia and China, has denounced Guaido as a U.S. puppet.
Bolton, a longtime Cuba hardliner, was frequently interrupted by applause in his address to veterans of the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion on the 58th anniversary of the failed operation to overthrow Castro. His speech was a sequel to one late last year branding Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua a “troika of tyranny.”
Bolton’s announcements included further measures to roll back parts of the historic opening to Cuba, an old Cold War foe, under his predecessor, Barack Obama.
The Obama administration’s approach, he said, “provided the Cuban regime with the necessary political cover to expand its malign influence.”
Among the Cuba measures announced by Bolton was reinstatement of limits on U.S. citizens sending remittances to Cuba at $1,000 per person per quarter. Remittances have surged since Obama started easing restrictions, becoming an important part of the economy and fueling growth of the private sector.
“Restricting remittances that can be sent to Cubans will directly hurt the Cuban people,” said Ben Rhodes, a former Obama adviser who negotiated the 2014 diplomatic breakthrough with Havana. “This is a shameful and mean-spirited policy.”
Bolton said the United States would also further restrict “non-family” travel to Cuba and cited military-owned Cuban airline Aerogaviota among five entities being added to the U.S. sanctions blacklist.
The Trump administration has previously sought to curtail Venezuela’s subsidized oil shipments to Cuba.
Also on Wednesday, Bolton announced sanctions on Nicaragua’s Bancorp, which he called a “slush fund,” and on Laureano Ortega, a son of President Daniel Ortega for what he described as “vast corruption.”
Trump’s toughened stance on Cuba as well as Venezuela and Nicaragua has gone down well among Cuban Americans in south Florida, an important voting bloc in a political swing state as he looks toward his re-election campaign in 2020.
Trump has added Cuba hawks to top posts. Bolton brought in Mauricio Claver-Carone, known as staunchly anti-Castro and an outspoken critic of Obama’s rapprochement with Havana, as his top Latin America adviser.
However, the risk, some former U.S. officials say, is that Trump’s team will overdo the targeting of Cuba in their anti-Maduro campaign and alienate some European and Latin American allies who have good relations with Havana but are also needed by Washington to maintain pressure on Venezuela.
Over the objections of key allies, Trump decided to allow a law that has been suspended since its creation in 1996 to be fully activated, permitting Cuban-Americans and other U.S. citizens to sue companies doing business in Cuba over property seized in decades past by the Cuban government.
Until now, Title III of the Helms-Burton Act had been fully waived by every president over the past 23 years.
Among the foreign companies heavily invested in Cuba are Canadian mining firm Sherritt International Corp and Spain’s Melia Hotels International SA. U.S. companies, including airlines and cruise companies, have forged business deals in Cuba since the easing of restrictions under Obama.
Mexico’s foreign ministry said in a statement late Wednesday that it “lamented” the U.S. decision, adding that the government will work to protect Mexican companies that have business interests in Cuba.
Toronto-based Sherritt said it would not be materially impacted by the Trump administration’s Helms-Burton decision and would continue to operate as usual focusing on meeting its nickel/cobalt production targets.
It was unclear, however, how Cuba property claims, some of which involve complex legal matters, will fare in U.S. courts.
The European Union said it will “consider all options at its disposal to protect its legitimate interests.”
Chrystia Freeland, minister of foreign affairs for Canada, which has coordinated with Washington on Venezuela, said: “Canada is deeply disappointed with today’s (U.S.) announcement.”
Kim Breier, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said a U.S. government commission has certified nearly 6,000 claims for property confiscated in Cuba with a current value of about $8 billion and that there could be up to 200,000 uncertified claims worth tens of billions of dollars if pursued.
(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Miami and Matt Spetalnick and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Additional reporting by Makini Brice, David Alexander and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Sarah Marsh and Marc Frank in Havana; Philip Blenkinsop and Jan Strupczewski in Brussels; Julie Gordon in Ottawa; Deisy Buitrago and Luc Cohen in Caracas; David Alire Garcia in Mexico City; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Mary Milliken and Lisa Shumaker)