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Tillerson signals tough Trump administration stance on Cuba

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Rex Tillerson's visit comes at a sensitive time for US-Russia relations (AFP Photo/EMMANUEL DUNAND)

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday said Cuba “must begin to address human rights challenges” if it wants Washington to preserve a move toward more normal relations started under former President Barack Obama.

Tillerson, speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee days before President Donald Trump is expected to announce a change in U.S. policy on Cuba, said the opening to the Communist-run island has led to an increase in U.S. visitors and U.S. business ties to the country.

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However, Tillerson added: “We think we have achieved very little in terms of changing the behavior of the regime in Cuba, restricting their people, and it has little incentive today to change that.”

Reuters reported last week that Trump was expected to visit Miami as early as Friday to announce a new Cuba policy that could tighten rules on trade and travel, rolling back parts of his Democratic predecessor’s opening to the island.

Many of Trump’s fellow Republicans, and some Democrats, objected to Obama’s policy shift, saying America’s former Cold War foe has not done enough to allow any easing of the 50-year-long U.S. embargo on trade and travel.

But the measures have proven popular with the public, U.S. businesses and many lawmakers from both parties.

Under questioning from Democratic Senator Tom Udall, Tillerson agreed that moves toward more normal relations with the United States have helped some Cubans lift themselves out of poverty and provided opportunities for U.S. companies.

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However, Tillerson said there is a “dark side” to relations with Cuba, noting that the government in Havana continues to jail political opponents and harass dissidents.

“If we’re going to sustain the sunny side of this relationship, Cuba must, absolutely must, address these human rights challenges,” Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a hearing on the broad State Department budget.

He said the Trump administration’s view is that the new U.S. policy is providing financial support to the Cuban government, which would violate U.S. law.

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“We are supportive of the … economic development, as long as it is done in full compliance with our existing statutes, and not provide financial support to the Cuban regime,” Tillerson said. “That’s the focus of our current policy review.”

Obama implemented his normalization measures through executive actions, and Trump has the power to undo much of them.

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(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by James Dalgleish)


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