Muted White House celebration marks Obama Cuba anniversary

Cuban leader Raúl Castro lifts President Barack Obama’s arm after a joint news conference in Havana in March.
Cuban leader Raúl Castro lifts President Barack Obama’s arm after a joint news conference in Havana in March.

It could have been a celebration of one of President Barack Obama’s most significant foreign-policy legacies. Instead, on Thursday, almost two years to the day when Obama single-handedly overturned U.S. policy toward Cuba, the White House assembled Cuban Americans, Cuban government officials and business partners in Washington to offer the best reassurances they could come up with that their efforts had not been in vain.

President Obama himself has spoken to President-elect Donald Trump about the importance of holding the course on Cuba. And once out of office, Obama intends to remain involved in Cuba matters as a private citizen, several meeting attendees told the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

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“He absolutely will,” said Ric Herrero, one of more than 20 Cuban Americans who met with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes.

Obama did not attend the private meetings, held across the street from the White House at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on a bitterly cold Washington day, though he sent each person a letter encouraging them “to carry forward the work of strengthening our partnership in the years ahead.” Over an informal lunch, attendees noshed on medianoche sandwiches, lechón and empanadas.

The White House did not specifically respond to a request for comment on the president’s Cuba plans or conversation with Trump. It’s unclear when the two men discussed Cuba, though they recently spoke by phone the day after Cuba announced Fidel Castro’s death.

In an MSNBC interview Thursday, Rhodes said Cuba has been “one of the subjects of discussion” between Obama and Trump.

“President Obama made clear there are real opportunities for American business down there,” Rhodes said.

Thursday’s meetings took place as proponents of closer U.S.-Cuba ties face continued uncertainty over what approach Trump will take toward the island’s communist regime. While Obama’s backers gathered in Washington, Miami’s hard-line Cuban-American members of Congress told reporters Obama’s Cuba policy has been “disastrous.”

“The United States has received no benefit from these concessions, nor have the Cuban people because the Castro regime has given up nothing — nada,” said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. “Hopefully with President-elect Trump and a new administration, we may be in a position to reverse some of the damage inflicted on the cause of freedom and democracy in Cuba.”

A crucial difference is over how much support to give Cuban dissidents. Ros-Lehtinen and her colleagues consider them the only legitimate political opposition; the people who met at the White House argue small business owners known as cuentapropistas pose a bigger, more powerful threat to the Cuban regime.

The White House has pushed for U.S. companies to complete agreements with the Cuban government ahead of Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration, hoping that having contracts in place will make Obama’s policy more difficult to undo. Cuba recently signed deals with cruise operators and Google, though the U.S. is pressuring Cuba to do more.

Thursday morning, dozens of people assembled to hear from Rhodes, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the acting American ambassador in Havana; José Ramón Cabañas, the Cuban ambassador in Washington, and three high-level officials from the commerce, state and treasury departments. Cabañas’ speech is believed to be the first by a Cuban ambassador at a White House event since the two countries renewed diplomatic ties. He reiterated the Cuban government’s opposition to the U.S. trade embargo — the “blockade,” he called it — and to the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay, several people in the audience said.

The Cuban delegation included representatives from the country’s top government banks, many of them already in Washington for talks held Tuesday on commercial and financial regulations, according to Cuba’s foreign ministry. Also attending: U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa, both Democrats.

A chief concern among attendees was that Trump’s “volatile” personality could ignite a war of words with the Cubans, who have so far kept silent about the president-elect’s Cuba statements. On the other hand, attendees noted, Trump doesn’t have a clear political ideology, and could be more interested in showing up Obama on Cuba by negotiating more concessions.

“We would like nothing more than the new administration to succeed beyond what we did,” Rhodes told reporters Tuesday.

On Thursday, Rhodes and DeLaurentis touted the administration’s accomplishments and, at different times, got emotional — Rhodes remembering support from Cuban-American friends in the wake of stinging criticism over his work, and DeLaurentis describing his work in Cuba, where he began and might end his diplomatic career, as the most rewarding of his life.

“It was partly a celebration of what has been achieved, and a mourning” for the intense political fight that awaits, said one of the participants, Ted Henken, a Baruch College sociology professor and Cuba expert who attended the event.

After lunch, only DeLaurentis, Rhodes and Rhodes’ staff met with the smaller group of Cuban Americans.

Among the guests were Miami entrepreneur Hugo Cancio, who publishes an arts magazine in Cuba; Felice Gorordo, founder of the Roots of Hope nonprofit; former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez; John McIntire, head of the Cuba Emprende Foundation; Miami attorney Ralph Patino; Giancarlo Sopo, founder of the CubaOne foundation, and Miami Foundation president and chief executive Javier Alberto Soto. After the meeting, some attended a reception organized by the U.S.-Cuba Business Council at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

One of their complaints: that Obama’s statement following Castro’s death was much too anodyne. At the time, some of them privately contacted the administration to express their dismay that Obama had not explicitly acknowledged Cuban exiles’ pain. The same point was made Thursday, one attendee said, and Rhodes responded that his team had heard their concern.

Herrero, who used to head the pro-engagement Cuba Now group, described the gathering as “bittersweet.”

“There was just a lot of gratitude toward the administration for their commitment to this cause and to everything they’ve done,” said Herrero, now president of Mano Americas, a social entrepreneurship nonprofit. “But at the same time, there was also the lingering question: What next? Where do we go from here? Because there is no certainty.”

Trump took the first step toward setting his own foreign policy by selecting Rex Tillerson, chairman and chief executive of Exxon Mobil, as his secretary of state. Unlike other potential picks, Tillerson’s Cuba position remains unknown. Exxon’s Cuban assets, worth tens of millions of dollars, were seized after Castro’s revolution.

Hardliners appreciate that Tillerson refused to join the Russian-owned Rosneft in drilling for Cuban oil. “The current sanctioned law of [the] United States will not allow us to participate in any activity in Cuba,” he said at Exxon Mobil’s 2014 annual shareholder meeting.

The other side, however, points to something else Tillerson said in the same meeting — that his company usually opposes sanctions. “We do not support sanctions, generally, because we don’t find them to be effective unless they are very well implemented comprehensively, and that’s a very hard thing to do.”

Both camps agree the biggest indication of what direction Trump will take lies in the people Tillerson appoints to run day-to-day Cuba operations at the State Department. The same goes for two other key departments dealing with Cuba, treasury and commerce, and for the National Security Council.

To help the Trump transition, at least one female White House staffer who worked with Rhodes on Cuba policy will remain in her position through March, the attendees were told. They declined to name her to reporters Friday.

Hardliners are certain Trump will reverse Obama’s approach entirely. Obama supporters detect a willingness from Trump to keep negotiating with Raúl Castro’s government. Regulatory changes, following a top-to-bottom policy review, could take time to reverse — so long, perhaps, that by then Castro might near his own retirement, scheduled for February 2018.

“We’re living through a lot of uncertainty, but there’s a pretty strong consensus that Trump is going to realize that turning back the clock is going to be very difficult,” said Carlos Saladrigas, president of the Cuba Study Group and one of Thursday’s White House guests. “Returning to a failed policy doesn’t make any sense.”

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