Politics

Inside Oval Office, Rubio and Diaz-Balart pushed Trump to crack down on Cuba

Rubio: Cuba will be free 'in 6 months or 6 years'

Speaking ahead of President Trump's announcement about changes in USA-Cuba policy, Sen. Marco Rubio (R) said Trump's announcement may be the start of freedom for Cuba.
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Speaking ahead of President Trump's announcement about changes in USA-Cuba policy, Sen. Marco Rubio (R) said Trump's announcement may be the start of freedom for Cuba.

Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart sat in the Oval Office last month, surrounded by two Cabinet secretaries, the national security adviser and an array of top White House staff, and asked President Donald Trump to put his power behind their plans for Cuba.

The Miami Republican lawmakers had been pressing Trump for months to unwind former President Barack Obama’s policies, bringing up Cuba at every opportunity: Diaz-Balart when he and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen met in private with their former House colleague, Vice President Mike Pence, in February; Rubio when he and his wife joined the president and first lady for an intimate dinner two days later, and again when the senator flew aboard Air Force One to Florida in March.

The administration had been waiting for deputies across Cabinet agencies to review existing Cuba regulations. By the May 3 Oval Office meeting, their recommendation was in: Keep Obama’s push to normalize U.S. relations with the regime of Cuban leader Raúl Castro.

That’s not what Trump wanted. As a candidate, he’d promised change to South Florida’s Cuban-American hard-liners, including Bay of Pigs veterans who endorsed him, a gesture that stuck with Trump and that he repeatedly mentioned as president.

“The president said, ‘Look, I want to do this,’ ” Rubio said.

So Rubio and Diaz-Balart advised Trump to work from the top down and impose his will over the reluctance of civil servants — including employees of two of the men in the room, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

“We had seen before that the administration and the president would push for it, but every time it went down, the bureaucracy would torpedo it,” Diaz-Balart said.

Trump agreed. So did National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus: Trump’s Cuba policy would be written by the White House and National Security Council, with help from Rubio and Diaz-Balart.

The result will be new restrictions on U.S. business dealings with the Cuban military, which controls most of Cuba’s economy, and tighter rules for non-Cuban Americans traveling to the island.

“It is my hope that in five to 10 years — or less — Cuba will look very different, and people will point to this as the moment that kind of triggered those changes,” Rubio said.

The policy rewrite, completed Wednesday ahead of Trump’s Friday announcement in Miami, represents a major political achievement for Rubio, who cited Cuba as one of the reasons for seeking reelection to the Senate last year, and for Diaz-Balart, the only one of three local Cuban-American Republican House members who endorsed Trump. (The two who didn’t, Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Carlos Curbelo, weren’t directly involved in crafting the new policy.)

“This is an issue that was not getting a lot of attention,” Diaz-Balart said. “Fortunately, we were able to get it from the back burner to the front burner just by being persistent.”

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Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart pushed for the Trump administration to revise former President Barack Obama’s Cuba policy. Roberto Koltun El Nuevo Herald

The Cuban-American legislators had each enumerated their own ideas to the White House separately earlier this year, keeping them so tightly held that when the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald obtained Diaz-Balart’s memo from another source in March, not even his own staff had copies readily available.

The memo had been hand-delivered to the president by Gov. Rick Scott, who saw Trump in Orlando and repeated what he’d suggested at a prior February meeting at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

“My recommendation to him was that he have one person — whether it be Secretary Tillerson or someone else — that was going to focus on Cuba policy,” Scott said.

Rubio’s outline was never made public. As White House talks progressed, his aides took to photographing hard copies of the proposed policy and sharing them via text message to avoid using email, a platform where Rubio, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is perennially a target. The senator and his aides referred to the project as “Martí,” after the Cuban patriot José Martí — only they anglicized the pronunciation to “Marty.”

Diaz-Balart’s behind-the-scenes work spilled into public view in March, when the White House courted his vote for the American Health Care Act. Diaz-Balart used the attention to again bring up Cuba, seeking assurances that Trump would follow through on revising Obama’s policy. Diaz-Balart voted “Yes” on the legislation and denied getting any promises from the White House. But now word was out that Cuba was in play.

Rubio’s critics accused him last week of protecting Trump — or whatever Cuba deal was in the works — when Rubio grilled former FBI Director James Comey during a Senate hearing. Rubio scoffed at the suggestion; at that point, he’d been talking to the White House about Cuba for months.

Trump had first mentioned Cuba to Rubio in November, when Rubio telephoned the Sunday after Election Day to congratulate his former primary rival.

“He says to me, unprompted: ‘We gotta figure out what to do about Cuba,’ ” Rubio recalled. “ ‘The Bay of Pigs guys were great to me.’ 

(“That obviously really got to him, the heroes of Bay of Pigs and how they had been betrayed,” Diaz-Balart said in a separate interview. “He brings that up all the time.”)

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

Following their February White House dinner, Trump and Rubio discussed Cuba again aboard Air Force One on March 3, when Rubio joined the president and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on a charter-school visit. On April 27, Rubio and Priebus spoke by phone and came to an agreement: no more waiting.

After that, things progressed quickly, with only a handful of people inside the White House, NSC and Congress clued in. Some of the policy framework had already been written: Two years ago, Rubio filed Senate legislation prohibiting financial transactions with Cuban military and security services. Last year, Diaz-Balart placed similar language into a House budget bill before Democrats forced it out.

Word that Cuba changes were afoot didn’t leak until Memorial Day weekend. Backers of Obama’s policy scrambled, releasing polls showing support for Cuba engagement, writing letters to the White House, and filing legislation in Congress in a show of force to Trump.

By then, it was too late.

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