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Last cruise ship leaves Cuba as fresh US sanctions bite

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Havana (AFP)

The last US cruise liner to stop over in Cuba was expected to sail out again Wednesday as stepped-up US sanctions against the Communist-run island came into force.

The Bahamian-flagged "Empress of the Seas" -- operated by US company Royal Caribbean Cruises -- docked in Havana on Tuesday just as the new sanctions were announced, taking many passengers by surprise.

"Right or wrong, we know nothing about it as American citizens. It was a total surprise to us," passenger Linda Mensure from Texas told AFP.

"We have got people scheduled to come next week and now they won't be able to. It's sad," said Jim Johnson, from Florida, referring to vacationers who had bought tickets for cruises that were to include Cuba on the itinerary.

"I?m one of hundreds of very angry passengers aboard a cruise ship in the middle of the Caribbean," said Cindy Hamilton, a nurse from Terre Haute, Indiana, in a tweet. "We all planned this cruise anticipating our stop in Cuba. Very upset!"

The clamp-down on US visas to Cuba aims to cut the flow of dollars to a country that Washington accuses of helping prop up Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

The Treasury Department banned group educational travel, cruise ship and private yacht visits by Americans, taking aim at the most common ways US tourists and Cuban-Americans visit the Caribbean island.

The move could constitute a heavy hit on Cuba, which saw more than a quarter-million US visitors in the first four months of 2019, almost double the figure from a year earlier.

Cuba and the US restored ties in 2015 and President Barack Obama himself visited Havana in a historic presidential trip in March 2016, meeting with then-president Raul Castro.

Weeks later, the ban was lifted on US commercial ship visits, opening the door for the Caribbean cruise ship industry to expand stops in Cuba.

However, the Obama initiative was attacked by President Donald Trump, who began restricting relations within months of his election.

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