Trump will not announce highly anticipated changes in Cuba policy

President Donald Trump addresses the National Governors Association at the White House.
President Donald Trump addresses the National Governors Association at the White House.

After much anticipation that an announcement on Cuba policy changes would be made no later than Saturday, President Donald Trump — in the midst of various political crises — has not decided what to do, officials said.

The White House had considered holding an event May 20 to commemorate the 115th anniversary of the birth of the Cuban Republic, but Trump will begin an international trip on Friday and the review of the policy toward the island has not concluded, a spokeswoman told el Nuevo Herald.

“The issue of Cuba is extremely complex, and the president does not want to rush it,” said the spokeswoman. “Besides, he won’t be here on May 20.”

The Trump administration is carrying out a review of Cuba policy that involves several federal agencies and is being coordinated by the National Security Council.

Rumors of an imminent announcement circulated around Capitol Hill and even crossed the Florida Straits to the island, although Havana seems less anxious than before, when Trump’s presidential victory and strong statements raised questions about the so-called “thaw” in diplomatic relations initiated by former President Barack Obama in 2014.

“Havana is confident that not much will happen,” said a businessman close to the Cuban government.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a drastic change would not make much sense because the Cuban communist government would quickly adjust to a policy of confrontation with its historical enemy, the United States, and because the island is in the throes of a significant transition — the expected retirement of Cuban leader Raúl Castro, 86, in February.

“Raúl Castro has nine months left [in office] and you are going to come out with a new policy to readjust later? What message will that send to [Cuba’s] new president?”

However, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, Francisco Palmieri, said last week that Trump’s revised Cuba policy would have “important differences” with the one implemented by Obama and currently in effect.

“One of the areas that will be a high priority is to ensure that Cuba makes further substantive progress toward greater respect for human rights in the country,” Palmieri said during a press conference in Washington, D.C.

That kind of pressure could take the form of more public criticism, for example in the United Nations, where U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley has already included Cuba among countries where “human rights are widely disregarded.”

But beyond public statements and gestures, “I’m not sure what else they can do,” said a former Obama administration official who was involved with the diplomatic shift toward Cuba and asked not to be named.

Several other sources with knowledge of the revision options agreed that changes to the presidential directive issued by Obama in October 2016 — or its elimination — could be one of the first measures announced by Trump.

However, even the elimination of the directive would be a “largely symbolic” move, said the former Obama official. Obama’s directive, she said, “clearly set out unambiguously what United States policy was,” in this case a policy of engagement. “To revoke it will not have concrete consequences as would changes in regulations.”

Almost all of Obama’s policy is based on new regulations or changes to existing ones through executive orders. While they could easily be reversed by the new president, it would require a legal study that would take more time. And a return to the pre-Obama policy would adversely affect U.S. companies that have established businesses in Cuba.

The review already has reached the level of deputy and undersecretaries of the various agencies involved, said another former Obama official, who also asked not to be named, adding that “the option that is winning for now is to seek elements within Obama’s directive [to eliminate] and impose symbolic changes.”

This would allow the Trump administration, “to gain time to see what they will do in the long run.”

But even if the final recommendations from government agencies end up being conservative and suggest that Trump should not make drastic changes at the moment, the administration must present them in a way that satisfies the pressure from Cuban-American Florida Republicans Marco Rubio and Mario Díaz-Balart, who have been most visibly involved in designing a new Cuba policy.

Just days after Trump’s electoral victory last year, Díaz-Balart predicted that a “dramatic” shift in policy toward the island would ensue. He now says he is “more certain than ever that the president and vice president’s policy on Cuba, which has been announced on numerous occasions ... will be enforced in a very short time.”

Díaz-Balart declined to comment on a memorandum attributed to his office in which he proposes to eliminate all the measures taken by Obama since December 2014, in essence to reverse the “thaw.” But he said that the magnitude of the upcoming changes would be such that the “Bay of Pigs heroes will not feel betrayed and will be very pleased that the president has fulfilled his commitment and will not make a policy to appease the regime.”

Rubio told el Nuevo Herald in April that he was “sure that President Trump is going to treat Cuba as the dictatorship that it is.” Most recently, he wrote on his Twitter account that he was still “confident” that Trump would keep his promise to make changes in Cuba policy.

Follow Nora Gámez Torres in Twitter: 305-376-2169, @ngameztorres