Trump’s announcement on Cuba could clash with Central American summit

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, and White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting on Monday.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, and White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting on Monday. AP

If President Donald Trump outlines his new Cuba policy in Miami on Friday, it could upstage a Central American conference that is bringing regional presidents and Mexican and U.S. Cabinet members to town this week.

Sources have told the Miami Herald that a presidential announcement of a new Cuba policy could come as early as Friday, but a Friday announcement would put the president on a collision course with the Central America summit organized by the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department. It’s also being held in Miami on Thursday and Friday.

It appears that the White House has already picked a venue for the president to present his new take on Cuba: the Manuel Artime Theater. Artime, who died in 1977, was a Cuban-American political leader with Brigade 2506, the exile landing force that took part in the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. Brigade 2506, now largely a veterans organization, endorsed Trump last October.

Scheduling the events for the same day would be “a strange juxtaposition with enormous immediate implications in terms of migration and narcotics,” said William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University.

The Central American conference will focus on security issues, drug trafficking, and the violence and poverty that are pushing migrants out of the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. It’s being co-convened with Mexico. Three Central American presidents, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, and top U.S. and Mexican officials are scheduled to attend.

“We can’t solve these problems without Central American governments,” said LeoGrande. If Trump were to roll back the Cuba opening while the Central American presidents are in town, “he would be making an announcement on Cuba policy that none of them support.”

Among steps Trump is reportedly considering are limiting travel by Americans to the island and restricting American companies’ ability to do business with entities controlled by the Cuban military. Sen. Marco Rubio and Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the only two local Republican members of Congress who backed Trump, have been pushing the president to roll back the opening by then-President Barack Obama.

One of the reasons that Obama gave for the rapprochement that began in December 2014 with Cuba was that continued isolation of the island by the United States was hampering its relationships with other Latin American countries.

“I think Mexico is more likely to criticize a change in Cuba policy publicly [than the Central American countries],” said LeoGrande “It’s very likely they will voice solidarity with Cuba in confronting the administration and the United States.” The Central American countries, which are scheduled to get far less American aid in Trump’s proposed budget, might be a bit more reticent in public, he said.

A Friday announcement on Cuba still appears to be a bit up in the air.

During a call with reporters on Monday about the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State John Creamer said the Trump-mandated review of Obama’s executive orders on Cuba continues.

“I’m not going to speculate on when the policy review will be completed. It will finish when it finishes,” said Creamer. “Once we have the policy review completed, the president will announce the policy at the time and place of his choosing.”

Trump has said that the United States should have gotten a better deal in its rapprochement with Cuba and in recent months he has been highly critical of the island’s human-rights record.

With the conclusion of the review appearing imminent, those on both sides of Cuba policy were making last-minute cases for and against a change.

Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas said he would support action to prevent U.S. business dealings with GAESA, the military conglomerate that controls much of Cuba’s tourism enterprises as well as distribution of goods, the container port and special economic development zone at Mariel, and scores of other enterprises.

Such measures, he said, would go “directly to the jugular of the regime, to the economic power of the military.” In response to the Obama opening, he said, the Cuban government, “intensified repressive measures.”

But not all dissidents favor a harder line against Cuba. More restrictions, said independent journalist Miriam Leiva, could result in even more suffering for the Cuban people and a further crackdown on their rights, she said. “Restrictions on trips by Americans would hurt fruitful people-to-people exchanges, primarily [exchanges} of knowledge, experiences, the ventures of the self-employed workers, information, culture, sports and other things.”

The Cuba Study Group, which includes Cuban-American business and civic leaders who favor engagement, sent a letter to Trump on Monday saying “we strongly believe it would be a mistake if the U.S. reversed the steady progress made toward normalization. Returning to a policy of isolation would only contravene the wishes of most Cubans and Cuban Americans and threaten U.S. national security, commercial opportunities and jobs.”

“They also warned that a reversal would be a “political error, one that would reverberate in the mid-term Congressional elections of 2018 and beyond.”

Engage Cuba also circulated a Morning Consult national poll on Monday that showed 65 percent of American voters support maintaining Obama administration Cuba policy and that six of 10 Republicans would like to keep Obama-era policies, which relaxed travel and trade restrictions. It surveyed 2,000 registered voters across and the country and has a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

“The political and personal interests of two members of Congress should not outweigh the will of the American people and the best interests of Cubans on the island,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba.

Miami Herald reporter Patricia Mazzei and el Nuevo reporter Nora Gámez Torres contributed to this report.

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