How Cuba policy, and its inevitable drama, ensnared Trump's White House
BY PATRICIA MAZZEI, NORA GÁMEZ TORRES, ANITA KUMAR AND FRANCO ORDOÑEZ
To unveil President Donald Trump's new U.S.-Cuba policy, his young
administration had eyed a day brimming with symbolism: May 20, Cuban
But as the date approached, and rumors flew in Washington and Miami
about a potential announcement, the overwhelmed White House conceded
none was coming. Its review of existing policy and regulation wasn't
complete — and still isn't.
Instead, when May 20 arrived, Trump issued what Cuba considered his
harshest statement yet as president about the island's communist regime,
saying that "cruel despotism cannot extinguish the flame of freedom in
the hearts of Cubans."
"The Cuban people deserve a government that peacefully upholds
democratic values, economic liberties, religious freedoms, and human
rights, and my administration is committed to achieving that vision,"
The statement, released on a Saturday by a president engulfed in Russia
scandals, received little national attention. But it infuriated Cuban
leader Raúl Castro's government — and started a panic among U.S.
activists desperate to keep former President Barack Obama's Cuba policy.
Now both sides of the Cuba policy debate are pressuring Trump to reject
or uphold Obama's most important foreign-policy legacy in the Western
Hemisphere, with a decision from the president expected in coming weeks.
Fueling activists' concern was the White House's reaction to a May
meeting, led by the National Security Council, of deputy secretaries of
various federal departments. The deputies recommended continuing much of
the policies and regulations Obama put in place, according to sources
familiar with the discussion.
But Trump's policy shop, citing the president's political agenda,
signaled the White House would want to make changes, the sources said —
and was already talking about them to Cuban-American lawmakers from Miami.
"Only the president will decide the best course to take in regard to
U.S. relations with Cuba," a senior White House official said Thursday.
"The president is aware that government repression against Cuban
opposition, dissidents and peaceful civic protesters such as the Ladies
in White have dramatically increased since the renewing of diplomatic
relations with Cuba."
As a candidate, Trump vowed in Miami last September to "reverse" Obama's
Cuba "concessions." His campaign credited Trump's visit a month later to
Little Havana's Bay of Pigs Museum, where he accepted an endorsement
from the Brigade 2506 veterans, as an important reason he won Florida on
Election Night — an assertion disputed by supporters of Cuban engagement.
"As the President has said, the current Cuba policy is a bad deal,"
another senior White House official said Thursday. "It does not do
enough to support human rights in Cuba.
"We are in the final stages of our Cuba policy review," the official
said. "However, a final decision on a path forward has not yet been
made. Once the review is complete, we will announce the results."
An announcement is expected in coming weeks — perhaps from Trump himself
in a Miami visit as early as June —but no date has been set.
Pushing a harder line are two Republican lawmakers, Sen. Marco Rubio of
Florida and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami. Both have spoken to the
White House several times on Cuba policy, though Rubio is said to be
dealing with Trump and his aides more closely, given his more
dispassionate demeanor and willingness to accept some Cuban engagement,
especially ahead of Castro's planned 2018 retirement.
"I am confident the president will keep his commitment on Cuba policy by
making changes that are targeted and strategic and which advance the
Cuban people's aspirations for economic and political liberty," Rubio
said in a statement.
Diaz-Balart brought up Cuba when the White House courted his vote for
the American Health Care Act beginning in March, though he has
repeatedly denied trading his healthcare support for any commitment from
the White House on Cuba policy. He was traveling Thursday and could not
be reached for comment.
Among the changes the White House has considered for months is
restricting popular "people-to-people" travel to Cuba, which allows
Americans to visit for educational and cultural exchange purposes.
Critics consider such trips outright tourism in violation of the Cuban
trade embargo, which can only be lifted by Congress.
"Travel is at stake in the review," said James Williams, president of
Engage Cuba, a lobbying group.
Last week, in an attempted show of force to the White House, more than
50 senators backed legislation to eliminate U.S. travel restrictions to
Cuba. On Thursday, Engage Cuba claimed undoing Obama's policies would
result in steep economic losses for the U.S.
Prohibiting existing commercial flights and cruises to Cuba could prove
difficult, several sources familiar with the regulations said, though
banning business between U.S. companies and companies tied to the Cuban
military — an idea pushed by Rubio and Diaz-Balart — would affect
American firms already working in Cuba. For example, Starwood Hotels and
Resorts manages hotels in Cuba owned by the Gaviota chain, a military
Enforcing such a ban might require the Treasury Department to create a
list of companies known to be linked to the Cuban military, sanction
specific individuals or companies, or require Cuban companies doing
business with U.S. firms to certify that they don't have any military ties.
Neither of the Cuban-American lawmakers have sought to close the U.S.
embassy in Havana, or to return to the policies of former President
George W. Bush, who restricted family travel and remittances to Cuba.
A member of the business community with knowledge of the situation who
did not want to speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the subject
said Cuba is not a top priority of the Trump White House, which has yet
to push anything significant through Congress.
But the person said that Rubio and Diaz-Balart are engaged in an intense
lobbying effort pushing the administration to act.
"I don't think Trump cares," the person said.
KUMAR AND ORDOÑEZ REPORTED FROM WASHINGTON.
Source: How Cuba policy ensnared Trump's White House | Miami Herald -