Nearly two years after President Barack Obama undertook the biggest change in U.S.-Cuba policy in half a century, the island’s communist regime suddenly finds itself at a new diplomatic crossroads, awaiting a President-elect Donald Trump who has increasingly embraced the harsh rhetoric of Obama’s most forceful Cuba critics.
Whether Trump will immediately undo the executive actions that restored relations between the two countries remains unclear. But the language adopted by Trump and his closest advisers in the hours following Fidel Castro’s death and over the weekend, and one of the incoming president’s recent transition hires, suggest Trump might be serious about punishing Cuba for not doing more in return after the U.S. lifted many of its travel, banking and commercial sanctions.
Though Obama's overtures weren't conditioned on any specific concessions by Cuba, the Cuban government has not shown much willingness to reciprocate by loosening its grip on civil society. In the face of a Trump presidency, that could prove to have been a missed opportunity to build good will.
“President-elect Trump is going to be looking for some movement in the right direction in order to have any sort of deal with Cuba,” Reince Priebus, Trump’s White House chief of staff, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I mean, it can’t just be nothing and then you get total and complete cooperation from the United States. There has to be something, and what that something is... is yet to be determined.”
Ever the negotiator, Trump has threatened to end all ties with the island so that, as president, he can extract some sort of concession from Cuba. The Obama actions Trump opposes have given him leverage to use against the island.
Though Obama’s policy is not particularly controversial outside of South Florida, Trump could feel beholden to the region’s Cuban-American voters, whom he assiduously courted and ultimately won. He learned the language of the exile community and promised to fight for a free Cuba — while offering few specifics.
Castro’s death didn’t nudge Trump’s team into reveal any more details. Kellyanne Conway, his campaign manager, said on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” that Trump won’t make any announcements until he’s president.
“Nothing is definite,” she said.
Pressed by host Chuck Todd on whether Trump would shut down any relations unless Cuba releases its political prisoners, Conway did not reject the idea.
“That’s for discussion. That’s certainly on the table,” she said. “This is what leaders do. Leaders listen. They learn. They take the counsel of many people. They see what the circumstances are. And he’s even been talking to President Obama.... They talked just yesterday.”
That conversation, she added, lasted 40-45 minutes. She wouldn’t say if Cuba came up.
Cubans on the island closely followed the U.S. campaign, almost entirely through the warped lens of the regime’s state-owned media. Reports from Havana over the weekend suggested Cubans were more eager to discuss Trump than Castro, a man many of them were raised to revere.
Even before Castro’s death, Trump won plaudits from hardline Cuban Americans last week, when he named Mauricio Claver-Carone to his transition team.
As head of the Washington-based U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, Claver-Carone is perhaps the most strident hardline voice outside of Congress when it comes to Cuba policy. He will advise Trump on matters related to the U.S. Treasury Department, where he worked as an attorney until 2003.
Claver-Carone did not respond to an interview request Sunday, but he’s written extensively — including in a recent Miami Herald op-ed — about rescinding Obama’s Cuba actions.
In a statement Saturday, the PAC said the U.S. “should make it unequivocally clear that — regardless of the Cuban dictator’s first and last name — codified sanctions will only be lifted upon the release of all political prisoners; the recognition and respect of fundamental human, civil and political rights as prescribed by international covenants; and the legalization of opposition parties and an independent media.”
Groups that favor Cuba engagement, such as Cuba Now, maintained after Castro’s death that forging closer ties with the island would “help the Cuban people fully integrate themselves” into the global community.
“We call on our elected officials to build on the historic steps taken by President Obama and continue revising U.S. policy to empower the people of both our nations to serve as catalysts for meaningful change in Cuba,” Executive Director Ric Herrero said in a statement Saturday.
Trump has yet to designate a secretary of state, the Cabinet member who would be the key player on Cuba policy. His transition has engaged in a highly unusual public spat over the qualifications and political loyalty of two finalists, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
“People feel betrayed to think that Governor Romney, who went out of his way to question the character and the intellect and the integrity of Donald Trump, now our president-elect, would be given the most significant Cabinet post of all,” Conway said on “Meet the Press,” stepping up her pressure against a Romney pick. “We don’t even know if he voted for Donald Trump.”
In Miami, Cuban-American Republicans steered clear of choosing sides between the two contenders. Only Congress can lift the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.
“Both are excellent choices who understand the differences between adversaries and allies,” U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the dean of the local delegation on foreign-policy matters, said Sunday in a statement to the Herald.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio told CNN’s “State of the Union” that it’s Trump’s “prerogative to choose the person that he can work with” — and the Senate’s job to vet the eventual nominee.
Asked about Giuliani, Rubio said he likes him “a lot.” “I know him well. I consider him to be a friend and a supporter of mine,” he said. “It’s important for me to know where he stands on a couple of key issues, if he is, in fact, the person who is nominated.”
Rubio continued to dismiss the notion that Trump, a celebrity real-estate mogul who as recently as 2012 or 2013 sent emissaries to Cuba to explore building a golf course there, might revert in office to the position he espoused early on as a candidate, when Trump made no mention of reversing Obama’s Cuba policy.
“Do you feel confident that a President-elect Trump, when in office, will roll back the openings that President Obama put in place?” CNN host Dana Bash asked.
“Well, I’ll take him at his word for it,” Rubio said. “That’s what he said he was going to do.”