Miami’s hardline Cuban exiles embraced Donald Trump when he was a presidential candidate limping to Election Day.
On Friday, President Trump loved them back, enacting a tougher policy toward Cuba as he basked in celebratory cheers that recalled his campaign rallies.
Casting it as a “great day” for the people of the communist island of Cuba, Trump powered into Miami and announced a sweeping change in diplomatic relations intended to rebuke his predecessor’s executive changes and spur commerce and personal freedoms. Criticizing Barack Obama’s “terrible and misguided deal with the Castro regime,” he promised a brighter future during a relaxed 38-minute speech and signed a new executive policy he said would hold the island’s leaders accountable for human rights violations and push them to open up economic and personal freedoms.
“We will not be silent in the face of communist oppression any longer,” he said.
Forget the investigations into whether his staff colluded with Russia and whether he obstructed justice by firing FBI Director James Comey, as Trump himself confirmed in a tweet Friday morning. Friday afternoon in East Little Havana offered Trump his favorite part of politics: praise from people who feel his promise has been kept.
“Last year I promised to be a voice against oppression ... and a voice for the freedom of the Cuban people,” he said. “You heard that pledge. You exercised the right you have to vote. You went out and voted and here I am like I promised.”
He stepped away from the lectern to a side table, picked up a pen and signed the policy with a flourish.
He’d wanted the announcement to take place at the nearby Bay of Pigs museum, where the Brigade 2506 veterans endorsed him last October — a moment Trump appeared to cherish, given how many times he’s mentioned it since to South Florida politicians. But the museum proved too small to accommodate the entourage of a presidential speech.
Instead, Trump spoke at the Manuel Artime Theater, a one-time church that offered an intimate atmosphere imbued with exile symbolism: The late Artime himself was a Bay of Pigs veteran. Brigade members, local politicians and activists sat on risers behind him, clad in matching polo shirts with embroidered insignia and sailor-style hats.
Trump, spurring a standing ovation, billed his appearance as a campaign promise kept to Cuban-Americans to take a harder stance on Cuba. He told the crowd he was canceling Obama’s Cuba policies, though in actuality he’s not. Rather, he’s taking a different approach to pressure Cuba to open its economy and eventually its political system.
“To the Cuban government I say, put an end to the abuse of dissidents. Release the political prisoners. Stop jailing innocent people. Open yourselves to political and economic freedoms,” he said. “Return the fugitives from American justice, including the return of the cop killer Joanne Chesimard. And finally, hand over the Cuban military criminals who shot down and killed four brave members of Brothers to the Rescue who were in unarmed, small, slow civilian planes.”
Joining Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on stage were the architects of his Cuba policy, Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, along with Rep. Carlos Curbelo, Gov. Rick Scott and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera. Rubio, Diaz-Balart and Curbelo flew from Washington with the president and Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, a Miamian, on Air Force One. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was also invited but stayed in Washington, citing family plans.
To a man, in their best Spanglish, they cast Friday’s gathering as a key moment that would move Cuba in the right direction to the betterment of its people. Rubio described Trump’s announcement as an event that would be remembered kindly by history.
“You mark my words: Whether it’s in six months or six years, Cuba will be free,” said Rubio, who was interrupted by hollers of “Viva Cuba libre!” “I believe that the people on the island — and history — will say that perhaps the key moment in that transition began on this day, here in this theater, with each of you and a president that was willing to do what needed to be done.”
Diaz-Balart, in a scathing rebuke of former President Obama’s easing of diplomatic relationships with Cuba leader Raul Castro, told the crowd “You will no longer have to witness the embarrassing spectacle of an American president doing the wave at a baseball game with a ruthless dictator.”
When he stepped off Air Force One at 12:25 p.m., Trump was greeted by Scott and three Cuban dissidents: Angel Defana, Jorge Luis García Pérez and Cary Roque. Waiting for him at the theater were dissidents Antonio Rodiles and Ailer González; Cuba did not allow two others, José Daniel Ferrer and Berta Soler, to fly to the U.S. for the event.
“This is a profound reframing of the policy,” Rodiles told el Nuevo Herald. “The details will be worked out, but it’s a completely different focus than before: Now they’re treating them like a dictatorship.”
Trump was scheduled to meet privately at the theater with the brigade president, Humberto Díaz Argüelles, and three members: José “Pepe” Cancio, Julio González Rebull and Félix Ismael Rodríguez. Pence made an earlier stop at Calle Ocho’s famed Domino Park, getting drenched in heavy rain as former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart introduced him from table to table.
“I need to come back on a sunny day and play some dominoes,” Pence said.
“Viva Trump!” some men shouted.
“This is a strategic victory for the Cuban resistance in exile,” said Orlando Gutiérrez Boronat, who heads Directorio Democrático, a Miami exile organization. “We’ve proven that they can’t forget about us.”
The invitation-only theater event drew a who’s who of prominent Miami Cuban-American Republicans, who greeted each other with an air of celebration. At least one sported a blue “Trump 2020” T-shirt. Some wore Trump’s signature red “Make America Great Again” campaign hats. Many wore guayaberas.
Streets surrounding the theater were closed all morning, slowing traffic and creating parking headaches. And that was before it started pouring.
People waited for hours inside the theater, occasionally breaking into chants of “U.S.A.!” “President Trump!” and “No fake news!” directed at the news media assembled in the back. At one point, the crowd gave a rendition of “God Bless America.”
Outside the theater, a small gaggle of supporters who didn’t have invitations to the event stood in support of Trump.
“The Cuban government has to be choked 100 percent to stop the cash flow,” said Ana Lacayo, a 41-year-old Kendall accountant and Nicaraguan immigrant dressed head-to-toe in red. “Everything you do goes directly to the government, all of the tourism and visits. I don’t support anybody being allowed to go to Cuba.”
Trump supporters confronted protesters — some of them clad in plastic rain ponchos — who chanted, “Not my president!”
“Communists!” some supporters responded.
The two sides comprised about 200 people, but were so loud they sounded like hundreds more.
“We protested during the elections, we protested during the primaries, and now we’re here protesting because we're still unsatisfied,” said Cesar Falcon, a 56-year-old Miami real estate agent who came to the U.S. from Cuba in 1968. “Change in Cuba means opening the doors and that will help everyone move on towards the future.”
Trump signed a national security presidential memo — not a presidential policy directive, as originally envisioned by the White House — ordering federal agencies to start writing regulations within 30 days to promulgate his new policy. The State Department will have to compile a list of entities tied to Cuba’s sprawling military conglomerate, Grupo de Administración Empresarial, S.A., or GAESA. Americans will be prohibited from transacting with those corporations, except for enumerated exemptions to, among other things, allow for commercial air and cruise travel and payments to private businesses, such as Airbnb rentals.
Travel to Cuba will also become more difficult. Cubans will still be able to visit family and send money. But Americans will have to travel as part of formal groups with set itineraries if they want to qualify under categories that allow educational and people-to-people cultural exchange trips. Another category, for support for the Cuban people, is more stringent but will still allow for individual travel. U.S. travelers will be prohibited from spending money at hotels and restaurants tied to the Cuban military. That includes many brand-name hotel chains.
How strictly the U.S. will enforce the restrictions will depend on the regulations federal agencies write — and whether the Cuban government tries to work around them.
The changes are intended to cut off cash to Cuban leader Raúl Castro’s regime, which controls about 60 percent of the island’s economy through military-run enterprises, and pressure the Cuban government to let the nascent private sector grow. Cuba’s state-run newspaper, Granma, on Friday said the Trump policy would limit business “with certain public Cuban enterprises that employ most of the country’s work force and produce goods and services with greater value added than the small-business sector.”
Backers of Obama’s policy argue tightening travel restrictions will reduce U.S. tourism and only hurt the very small businesses Trump hopes to help.
“This policy was clearly written by people who have never been to Cuba, at least not in this century,” James Williams, head of Engage Cuba, a group that lobbies for closer Cuba ties, said Thursday in a statement. “Because if they had, they’d know that the only think that restricting travel will do is devastate Cubans working in the private sector who have relied on American visitors to provide for their families.”
El Nuevo Herald reporters Nora Gámez Torres and Brenda Medina, and Miami Herald writers Alexandria Bordas and Martin Vassolo, contributed to this report.