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 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, hotel operators and technology providers, while big U.S. phone carriers have signed roaming agreements on the island.
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 wanted 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 Sunday on Fox News. “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.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), a critic of Mr. Obama’s opening, said Sunday on CBS that he hopes Mr. Trump will examine Mr. Obama’s changes to U.S.-Cuba policy and consider whether they foster democracy.
Ana Rosa Quintana, an expert on Latin America at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said she hopes Mr. Trump will roll back regulations that allow U.S. companies to interact with state-run entities in Cuba.
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.
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.”
That gives Mr. Trump broad authority to scale back U.S. relations with Cuba, said lawyers and former officials who specialize in sanctions policy.
Regulations that allow U.S. companies to deal with Cuban state-owned entities seem the most vulnerable, such as one that allows U.S. businesses to use state-owned distributors as middlemen for deliveries to the private sector, the former officials and lawyers said.
Peter Harrell, a former senior official at the State Department who worked on sanctions in the 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 critics believe went too far. According to the State Department, 700,000 Americans visited Cuba in 2015, which officials said was an increase from previous years.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see that rescinded,” said Robert Muse, a Washington-based lawyer who advises companies on 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 critical of a deal Starwood Hotels signed with the Cuban government earlier this year, under which the company is running a hotel once owned by the tourism arm of the Cuban military. Mr. Harrell said Mr. Trump might rethink that authorization or allowing similar licenses in the future.
Mr. Claver-Carone didn’t respond to requests for comment. Starwood, now owned by Marriott International Inc., declined to comment.
In addition to corporations seeking to invest in Cuba, Mr. Obama’s policy has strong support in another Republican stronghold: the farming industry.
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, adding that U.S. market share in Cuba has decreased in recent years as other countries are able to provide better financing.