The night before the White House planned to announce new regulations restricting U.S. business and travel in Cuba, the biggest champions of President Donald Trump’s tighter policy — Miami’s Republican lawmakers in Congress — were in the dark.
Federal agencies writing the rules had gotten input from some of the legislators and their aides over the past five months, ever since Trump unveiled his new Cuba approach to much fanfare in East Little Havana. But Trump’s administration, wary of past leaks, kept close hold of the final product. News reporters knew a Wednesday morning announcement on the regulations was imminent before the members of Congress had even been briefed.
Once informed, the Miami politicians were dissatisfied.
Instead of unconditional applause, as they offered when Trump signed his policy directive, Sen. Marco Rubio and Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen gave lukewarm statements lamenting that “bureaucrats” resisted giving muscular backing to the president.
“The regulatory changes announced today by Treasury and Commerce begin to implement President Trump’s June 2017 policy for enforcing U.S. sanctions laws against the Castro regime,” Rubio said in a statement. “Unfortunately, however, bureaucrats in the State Department who oppose the President’s Cuba policy refused to fully implement it when they omitted from the Cuba Restricted List several entities and sub-entities that are controlled by or act on behalf of the Cuban military, intelligence or security services.”
Rubio weighed in nearly five hours after the regulations were published — a clear indication of displeasure from a senator known for his quick, detailed reactions to matters of Latin America policy he cares deeply about. He used his statement to criticize the State Department for failing to include two major tourism brands from the U.S. list of 180 Cuban entities banned from doing business with Americans.
Rubio called for the addition of Gran Caribe and Cubanacan, which are owned by the Cuban tourism ministry and not the military, the institution chiefly targeted by Trump. But Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz is an army colonel — a link Rubio signaled should be enough to land the two holding companies on the U.S. restricted list.
“I remain confident that this effort by some in the State Department to undermine the President’s directive will be addressed,” Rubio said.
The critical response was particularly striking coming from Rubio and Diaz-Balart, because the lawmakers helped draft Trump’s June policy directive in the Oval Office.
“Today’s announced regulations include some positive first steps,” Diaz-Balart said. “I am disappointed, however, that the regulations do not fully implement what the President ordered. It is clear that individuals within the bureaucracy who support the former administration’s Cuba policy continue to undermine President Trump.”
Like Rubio, Diaz-Balart blamed his disappointment on federal employees who, in his view, wrote softer regulations than the ones Trump called for. Diaz-Balart and Rubio have fretted for months that career civil servants — particularly in State — favor former President Barack Obama’s Cuba opening and have pushed back against the more hardline policy endorsed by Trump.
Capitol Hill proponents of Trump’s approach worried even before Wednesday that the regulations would have little teeth. One congressional source noted Tuesday that Trump’s directive was heavy on rhetoric but left a lot of wiggle room to write implementation rules.
“Once you got past the rhetoric, it was nothing,” the source said.
Among the remnants of Obama’s policy in Wednesday’s regulations: allowing “people-to-people” travel to Cuba without a specific, pre-approved license; allowing credit-card transactions from the island, and allowing Americans to purchase Cuban cigars and most brands of rum for personal use.
While Trump’s directive called for essentially a blanket prohibition against doing business with military-linked enterprises, the regulations restrict dealings to the 180 entities and subentities identified by State’s restricted list. Other companies will not be affected, even if they are owned or controlled by the listed entities.
“I look forward to working with the President to ensure that his policy is fully implemented, and that the regulations are entirely consistent with his intent, unlike the ones announced today,” Diaz-Balart said. “I trust that President Trump will not allow Washington bureaucrats to stand in the way of his directive to support the Cuban people’s democratic aspirations.”
Ros-Lehtinen, who is retiring next year and has been more critical of Trump, focused her criticism on allowing U.S. companies with existing Cuba business deals to keep their contracts.
“The carve outs in the regulations and the acceptance of this false narrative of a Cuban private sector are disappointing,” she said. “Let me be clear: There is no truly independent private sector under a communist dictatorial regime because the regime controls all aspects of society.”
She also said the U.S. must “resolve the matter of confiscated U.S. property claims that impacts our own U.S. national interests.”
The fourth Miami Republican in Congress, Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who has been less involved in reshaping Cuba policy, limited his comments to two Twitter posts generally praising the Trump administration.
“This is a good step toward limiting the flow of cash & resources to the Castro dictatorship; diminishing its ability to export revolution, spread anti-Americanism & repress Cubans,” Curbelo tweeted. “The policy of unilateral concessions is officially over.”
El Nuevo Herald staff writer Nora Gámez Torres, Miami Herald Washington correspondent Alex Daugherty and McClatchy White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez contributed to this report.