By Sarah Marsh
HAVANA (Reuters) - The Trump administration has ordered Marriott International to wind down hotel operations in Communist-run Cuba, a company spokeswoman told Reuters, extinguishing what had been a symbol of the U.S.-Cuban detente.
Starwood Hotels, now owned by Marriott, four years ago became the first U.S. hotel company to sign a deal with Cuba since the 1959 revolution amid the normalization of relations pursued by former President Barack Obama.
But the administration of President Donald Trump has unraveled that detente, tightening the decades-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba and saying it wants to pressure the island into democratic reform and to stop supporting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
The approach could help Trump bolster support in the large Cuban-American community in Florida, a state considered vital to his re-election chances in November.
A company spokeswoman said the U.S. Treasury Department had ordered the company to wind down its operation of the Four Points Sheraton in Havana by Aug. 31. It would also not be allowed to open other hotels it had been preparing to run.
A U.S. Treasury Department spokesperson said it could not comment on specific licensing matters, but that the administration aimed to prevent Cuba's military from using revenue from tourism to "oppress its own people",
The Four Points Sheraton in Havana, like swaths of the tourism sector and economy at large, is controlled by the commercial arm of the Cuban military.
"In 2017, Trump promised he would not disrupt existing contracts U.S. businesses had with Cuba," wrote William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert at American University in Washington, on Twitter. "Promise made, promise broken."
The news comes two days after the U.S. State Department expanded its list of Cuban entities with which Americans are banned from doing business to include the military-owned financial corporation that handles U.S. remittances to Cuba.
U.S. sanctions have further crippled an economy already struggling with a decline in aid from leftist ally Venezuela and the end of hard-currency generating Cuban medical missions in Brazil and elsewhere.
Philip Peters who runs the FocusCuba business consultancy and has advised Marriott, said no good had come from a lifetime of U.S. sanctions that separated the U.S. and Cuban peoples, harmed Cuba’s economy, and limited American influence in Cuba.
"Marriott .. will hopefully return to do business in Cuba, along with others, to encourage American travel and to help Cuba prosper and integrate into the global economy," he said.
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Havana; Additional Reporting by Marc Frank in Havana and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, David Gregorio and Tom Brown)