How Cuba policy, and its inevitable drama, ensnared Trump’s White House

As a candidate, Donald Trump visited the Bay of Pigs museum in Little Havana.
As a candidate, Donald Trump visited the Bay of Pigs museum in Little Havana.

To unveil President Donald Trump’s new U.S.-Cuba policy, his young administration had eyed a day brimming with symbolism: May 20, Cuban Independence Day.

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,” Trump said.

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.

On Aug. 11, 2016, Donald Trump gave his thoughts on the 'wet foot, dry foot' Cuban immigration policy as part of a wide-ranging interview with Miami Herald reporter Patricia Mazzei focused on South Florida issues.

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.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio Tasos Katopodis Getty Images

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.

diaz balart
U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart Roberto Koltun Miami Herald

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 enterprise.

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.

Donald Trump spoke to the Cuban American National Foundation in 1999, casting himself as a pro-embargo hardliner who refused to do potentially lucrative business in Cuba until Fidel Castro was gone. Keyframe photo by Tim Chapman of Donald Trump as

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.