By Carol Lee and Felicia Schwartz
WASHINGTON -- The death of Fidel Castro is putting unexpected pressure on President-elect Donald Trump to follow through on earlier promises to reverse the recent openings to Cuba made by President Barack Obama.
While Mr. Trump could legally undo Mr. Obama's efforts, which were implemented using executive authority, he could face pushback from U.S. companies now deeply invested in Cuba under the current administration's policy. Those companies include major airlines, hoteliers and technology providers.
Mr. Trump's top aides said Sunday that he would demand the release of political prisoners held in Cuba and push the government to allow more religious and economic freedoms. Reince Priebus, Mr. Trump's incoming White House chief of staff, said the president-elect "absolutely" would reverse Mr. Obama's policies if he didn't get what he wants from Cuba.
"We're not going to have a unilateral deal coming from Cuba back to the United States without some changes in their government," Mr. Priebus said on Fox News Sunday. "Repression, open markets, freedom of religion, political prisoners: these things need to change in order to have open and free relationships, and that's what President-elect Trump believes, and that's where he's going to head."
Mr. Obama announced in December 2014 that his administration had reached a deal with Cuba to begin to normalize relations. Since then, embassies have reopened in both countries, and the U.S. has loosened trade and travel restrictions to Cuba.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), a critic of Mr. Obama's opening, said on CBS Sunday that he hopes Mr. Trump will examine U.S.-Cuba policy and Mr. Obama's changes to consider whether they help foster democracy on the island.
"I'd like to see more of a democratic opening on the island of Cuba," Mr. Rubio said. "I'd like to see our foreign policy geared towards accelerating that."
He added "I am not against changes in U.S. policy towards Cuba. I just want to make sure that those changes are reciprocal, that they're reciprocated by the Cuban government. That was not part of what President Obama did."
Despite bipartisan support, Congress has refused to lift the economic embargo on Cuba, which administration officials have said is necessary to fully normalize relations.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), a co-sponsor of a bipartisan bill to lift the embargo, said until Republican leaders allow a vote on the legislation its supporters are "stymied."
Peter Harrell, a former senior official at the State Department who worked on sanctions duringthe Obama administration, said he expected Mr. Trump would "pull back some of that dealing with the Cuban state while allowing travel and private enterprise to go forward."
Another measure Mr. Trump could reverse is Mr. Obama's decision earlier this year to allow so-called people-to-people travel to Cuba without a tour group, a move that essentially lifted the travel ban and that some observers believe went too far.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see that rescinded," said Robert Muse, a Washington-based lawyer who advises companies interested in doing business in Cuba.
Republican opponents of Mr. Obama's Cuba policy -- including Mauricio Claver-Carone, who is on Mr. Trump's transition team at the Treasury Department -- have been especially critical of a deal Starwood Hotels signed with the Cuban government earlier this year, under which the company is now running a hotel that was owned by the tourism arm of the Cuban military. Mr. Harrell said Mr. Trump might also rethink that authorization or allowing similar licenses in the future.
Mr. Claver-Carone and Starwood didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
The White House has been working to facilitate new investments in Cuba by U.S. companies to try to further entrench business and trade ties between the two countries before Mr. Obama leaves office, with new announcements expected in coming weeks.
The potential blowback from U.S. business has been the White House's de facto insurance policy on Mr. Obama's approach to Cuba. The number of Americans traveling to Cuba has significantly increased and major U.S. phone carriers have signed roaming agreements on the island.
Matt Miller, an American Airlines spokesman, said the company is proceeding "full steam ahead" with plans to expand its service from the U.S. to Cuba this week to include flights to Havana from Miami and Charlotte. Commercial airline service to Cuba resumed in September.
In addition to businesses, Mr. Obama's Cuba policy has strong support in another Republican stronghold: the farming industry. Administration officials are relying on lawmakers in agriculture states poised to benefit from trade with Cuba and a growing number of Cuban Americans who support policy changes that allow them to travel more often to Cuba and send more money to their family members living there.
Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said he voted for Mr. Trump but didn't want to see the next administration take any steps that would put U.S. farmers at a further disadvantage in the Cuban market.
"Every other country in the world has diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba, and what we don't want to do is lose that market share to the European Union, Brazil, Argentina," Mr. Paap said.
Rep. Tom Emmer (R., Minn.), a strong proponent of lifting the embargowho supported Mr. Trump during the election, said he hopes the Trump administration will seize on the opportunity of Mr. Castro's death to further normalize ties.
"Hopefully the Trump administration will build off what has already been created, understanding that it is a new day in the Western Hemisphere," he said in an interview.
Paul Johnson, co-chair of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, said he isn't yet worried that Mr. Trump will reverse the momentum from Mr. Obama's policy because "rural America clearly supports normalization of trade with Cuba" and wants an end to the U.S. embargo.
Roger Noriega, a top official on Latin America at the State Department during the Bush administration, said Mr. Trump should reconsider the U.S. approach to Cuba, even if he doesn't completely roll back Mr. Obama's changes.
"The President- elect doesn't have to break diplomatic relations if he doesn't want to, but maybe he shouldstart over in terms of a strategy that require something from the regime," Mr. Noriega said.
Write to Carol Lee at email@example.com and Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
November 27, 2016 19:03 ET (00:03 GMT)
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