One year after President Donald Trump came to Miami and signed a presidential directive outlining his new Cuba policy, the White House shows little appetite for negotiations of a “better deal” with Havana, one of his campaign promises.
“We're watching” the situation in Cuba and “have nothing to announce,” a spokesperson for the National Security Council (NSC) told el Nuevo Herald.
Even though Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un — “Adversaries can become friends,” the president declared — the White House does not believe there is an opportunity for negotiations with Miguel Díaz-Canel, 58, named as president of Cuba in April.
“No. Raúl is in charge,” said the NSC official, who agreed to speak on background. “I don't know about a better deal, but our policy is that if Americans go to Cuba to do business with Cuba, the money should go to the private sector and not to companies controlled by the military.”
Raúl Castro, 87, handed the leadership of the government to Díaz-Canel but said he plans to remain head of the ruling Communist Party of Cuba until 2021.
“President Trump sees a bright future for Cuba once it is freed from the corrupt communist ideology that has repressed its people for decades,” the spokesman wrote in an email. “Under the previous administration, the deal struck with Cuba only empowered the tools of repression and did not increase freedom or bring democracy to the Cuban people.”
Although Trump declared, “We will take care of Cuba” the day that Díaz-Canel was officially nominated to succeed Castro, Cuba does not appear to be a foreign policy priority for a White House busy with negotiations with North Korea, trade wars with allies and tensions with Iran. Even within the hemisphere, the administration has been focused on the crisis in Venezuela, which has unleashed a massive exodus of emigrants that threatens to destabilize the region. At the same time, the NSC spokesperson said the White House was “very much aware” of the support provided to Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro by Cuban military and security forces.
Trump has retained most of the Obama administration policies, such as allowing commercial flights to Cuba. But in June of 2017, he signed an executive order that restored a ban on individual visits to Cuba under the “people to people” category and prohibited direct business deals with 180 companies linked to the Cuban military — most of them to the Grupo de Administración Empresarial S.A. (GAESA). The U.S. Department of Commerce also simplified the rules for U.S. exports for the private sector and established a task force to study how to improve Cubans' access to the internet.
The NSC spokesperson said the measures ensure “that any tourist dollars spent in Cuba go to the people of Cuba and not to operations run by the military and intelligence agencies and (amplify) ... efforts to support the Cuban people through the expansion of internet services, free press and enterprise, and lawful travel.”
The reference to “tourist dollars” was unclear because the U.S. embargo bans tourist visits to Cuba.
Human rights abuses
One key part of the Trump policies on Cuba has been a sharp increase in the tone of the criticisms of human, civil and political rights abuses in Cuba by the State Department, the White House and the U.S. mission to the United Nations. Just after Díaz-Canel became the only candidate nominated to succeed Castro, State department spokesperson Heather Nauert said the U.S. government was “disappointed” with elections that were neither free nor fair.
Critics of the Trump administration said it is being inconsistent when it uses human rights abuses to justify a harder policy toward Cuba while they have been mostly overlooked in negotiations with the North Korean leader, accused of multiple atrocities.
“It is massive hypocrisy,” said Carlos Saladrigas, president of the Cuba Study Group, which favors a policy of U.S. engagement with Cuba.
For the time being, several aspects of Trump's presidential directive last year have not been implemented, among them regular audits of U.S. travelers to Cuba. “There is only so much time and that would take a lot of resources,” the NSC spokesperson said.
A different explanation was offered by attorney Robert F. Muse when he spoke at a gathering on U.S.-Cuba relations last week in Washington. Cuba's ambassador to the United States, Jose Ramón Cabañas, also spoke at the session.
“Within 90 days, the attorney general was required to issue a report … related to the fugitives from U.S. justice who live in Cuba. That should have been issued September 17 (of last year). It never happened,” Muse said.
He added that the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Controls had explained to lawyers that indirect transactions with companies on the U.S. black list are allowed — for example, making a Havana hotel reservation through a company in a third country.
"It is not the sort of regulatory interpretation you expect from a highly punitive administration," Muse said.
Muse attributed the partial implementation of the presidential directive “to a lack of interest in Cuba...or someone in the administration has put Cuba off limits to a degree from a frantic set of punitive rule-makings that would complicate things later, should there be an opportunity...to complete the normalization project.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Florida Republican who helped to draft the presidential directive, told el Nuevo Herald in a previous interview that the list of military companies under U.S. sanctions was not complete enough and that he had asked for other companies to be added. The list has not been updated since it was published in November.
The Treasury, Justice and State Departments did not reply to questions about the directive. The State Department also did not reply to questions about the list of sanctioned companies.
Cuba, for its part, has returned to its policies prior to the brief thaw in relations with the Obama administration. Both Castro and Díaz-Canel said they would make no “concessions” to the U.S. “As long as we believe that there's a lack of respect or that the dialogue is not balanced, we'll leave it there,” Cabañas said.
Under Trump’s White House, any U.S.-Cuba dialogue would be conditioned on a string of changes by Havana that appear unlikely in the short run.
“The President has clearly laid out the steps that Cuba needs to take to improve relations with the United States,” the NSC spokesperson said. “Cuba must secure important freedoms for its people, including the freedom of worship, speech, and association. Cuba must return U.S. fugitives hiding from justice and remove restrictions on free enterprise. The government must also improve Cuba’s record on human rights, including ending their oppression of democracy advocates, human rights defenders, and independent media through arbitrary detentions, torture, limitations on travel, intimidation, and harassment”.
One positive step the Cubans could take, Nauert said, might be to help unravel the mystery of so-called “health attacks on the health” of U.S. diplomats and relatives based in Havana.
“In a very small country like Cuba they may know more than they are sharing with us,” she said.
The issue has been a source of tensions between the two countries, and their embassies are operating with minimum staffs after Washington withdrew most of its diplomats in Havana, ordered Havana to reduce its staff in Washington and issued a warning about travel to Cuba.
“We don't believe there's any reason to reduce the embassy staffs,” Cabañas said, adding that he had urged the State Department not to take that decision. He said Cuba was ready to return its embassy in Washington to normal staffing levels quickly, but a report that two more Americans in Havana were affected in May might complicate the issue further.
At the 7th gathering of the Bilateral Commission in Washington D.C. on Thursday, State Department officials "reiterated the urgent need to identify the source of the attacks on U.S. diplomats and to ensure they cease," a statement said. "We also reiterated that until it is sufficiently safe to fully staff our Embassy, we will not be able to provide regular visa services in Havana."
The health attacks, still under investigation and with no clear guilty party, have sparked much ill will between the two governments. A Sept. 26 meeting between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez was a disaster, according to several sources who asked for anonymity. Rodríguez claimed his government was doing everything possible to clarify the incidents, but three days later Tillerson ordered the evacuation of non-essential embassy staff in Havana. And later, an event in which Castro took a group of youths with hearing disabilities to visit the tomb of his brother Fidel was perceived by some U.S. official as a mockery because loss of hearing is one of the symptoms reported by the 24 confirmed U.S. victims of the “health attacks.”
Expanding internet access on the island could be another step towards better relations, Nauert added.
Díaz-Canel, who has repeatedly talked about the Internet and technology, met recently with the former executive president of Google and other company executives to discuss the possibility of increasing Cuba's access to the Internet through new submarine cables.
While awaiting substantial changes in Cuba, low level bilateral cooperation has taken place with little notice, including contacts between U.S. and Cuban law enforcement agencies. The U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency met with Cuban officials to discuss money laundering and human trafficking.
Cabañas praised the cooperation but said he lamented the drop in the number of U.S. travelers to the island, which he blamed on the travel warning and confusion over travel regulations.
The drop hit Cuba's small private sector. While there is no data on the amount of money no longer going to the Cuban state, the preliminary results of a survey by the Cuba Study Group show that workers in the private sector lost from 25 to 50 percent of their income. It's not clear how much of the drop was the result of the Cuban government's own decision to freeze new licenses for private work, tighten inspections and other controls and raise the prices of the raw materials required by the private sector.
“The new (U.S.) regulations empower the people of Cuba, not the government or the corrupt GAESA,” Rubio said. “If the Cuban people continue to suffer, responsibility lies solely with the oppressive Cuban regime, which refuses to allow its people to hire employees and operate and expand their own businesses.”
The Cuban government also has halted some of the cooperation projects between the two countries.
“The issue is not on the American side now, it’s on the Cuban side. They’ve become very cautious and there are long delays on project approvals,” said David E. Guggenheim, a marine biologist who heads Ocean Doctor, an organization that has been cooperating with Cuba for the past 18 years.
“I have a pretty bold message for them,” he said. “This is the time, when relations are uncertain and the loosing of public support in this country for ending the embargo … this is the time to double down on projects that really illustrate the positive side of collaboration between the United States and Cuba.”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres