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President Trump's Cuba Restrictions Met With Bipartisan Opposition

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- President Donald Trump's new policy to restrict U.S. trade and tourism in Cuba faces strong opposition from critics who say the policy is inconsistently applied and could harm the Cuban people, not help them.

Congress' Bipartisan Cuba Working Group condemned the president's plan to roll back policies that expanded trade and travel to Cuba.

ALSO READ: Trump Restores Some Travel, Economic Restrictions On Cuba

"We strongly disagree with the decision to reinstate failed isolationist policies towards Cuba. Restricting travel and trade and limiting our ability to export American democracy and values will hinder, not help, efforts to improve human rights and religious liberties in Cuba," the working group said in a statement Friday.

The group's chair, U.S. Representative Barbara Lee (D-East Bay), said in a statement that increased economic restrictions with Cuba hurt families in both countries and damages the United States' global standing. She argued the reversal could cost the U.S. economy $6.6 billion over the next four years, with the travel industry taking taking the brunt of the losses.

Trump argued that the profits from American tourism flow directly to the government, not the people of Cuba. He justified the increased restrictions on the basis of human rights violations.

Some of the United States' strongest allies with which it does business, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have poor human rights records as well, according to the 2016 U.S. Department of State's Human Rights Report.

Dr. Layna Mosley, a political science professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told CBS San Francisco that Trump's announcement is somewhat hard to accept at face value, saying, "he's justified his actions on human rights grounds, yet he is more than happy to praise the government of Saudi Arabia, making deals with that regime which ignore its very checkered human rights record."

For decades, American citizens couldn't freely travel to Cuba. But in recent years, under former President Barack Obama, restrictions on American business and tourism to the Caribbean island were relaxed, allowing citizens of the two nations to have cross-cultural exchanges and open up a new market for American business.

Among the companies that jumped in to Cuba was San Francisco-based Airbnb, who said last year that Cuba was its fastest growing market. Over the last two years, $40 million has been paid to Cubans via Airbnb for sharing their homes with travelers from around the world.

Airbnb spokesman Nick Papas told CBS San Francisco that the company believes, "Travel from the U.S. to Cuba is an important way to encourage people-to-people diplomacy."

He said Airbnb will be reviewing the details of the new policy, but said it appears to allow Airbnb to continue to support hosts in Cuba.

"Airbnb has helped individual Cuban people earn extra income and we have seen how travel can break down barriers and promote understanding," Papas said.

Mosley said that despite more than five decades of comprehensive sanctions against Cuba, the Cuban government continues to repress dissent. She argues that exposure to the rest of the world allows "ordinary Cubans to observe the benefits that come from living in societies with free markets and free expression."

The U.S. Department of State in 2016 reported that the Cuban government continues to use physical assault, intimidation, and violent government-organized counter protests against peaceful dissent. Cuban citizens are not able to choose their own government and the government uses harassment and detention to prevent its citizens from peaceful assembly and free expression.

Mosley said very targeted sanctions, "e.g. at the overseas bank accounts of wealthy officials, they have an effect; but more general sanctions tend to hurt ordinary citizens."

Mosley traveled to Cuba in 2016 and said her tour guide there, who had previously worked in Cuba's foreign trade ministry, went from making around $300 year, to making more than that during a single week in tips as a guide.

Tom Long, a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Reading, and author of the recent book, Latin America Confronts the United States, told CBS San Francisco the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba is strongly opposed by Latin American governments, which could complicate U.S. foreign relations in the hemisphere.

Long said the policy will likely mean a reduction in U.S. tourism and thus, fewer dollars in the pockets of Cubans. He also asserted that violations don't decline just because embargoes are tightened.

"It is unlikely to lead to a better human rights situation," said Long. "Harsher U.S. policy has not helped human rights."

By Hannah Albarazi - Follow her on Twitter: @hannahalbarazi.

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