Trump defies congressional Republicans who want closer relations with Cuba

Passengers on a JetBlue flight to Santa Clara, Cuba in August 2016. President Donald Trump will curtail business with the Cuban military conglomerate and restrict some travel by Americans, but diplomatic relations and travel for Cubans will not change.
Passengers on a JetBlue flight to Santa Clara, Cuba in August 2016. President Donald Trump will curtail business with the Cuban military conglomerate and restrict some travel by Americans, but diplomatic relations and travel for Cubans will not change. AP

Congressional Republicans from outside South Florida opposed President Donald Trump’s revamped Cuba policy announcement on Friday, as lawmakers from states with agricultural and trade interests on the island fretted about the economic implications of a ban on U.S. business with the Cuban military apparatus.

“Any policy change that diminishes the ability of Americans to travel freely to Cuba is not in the best interests of the United States or the Cuban people,” said Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a proponent of ending the Cuban embargo.

Flake introduced legislation earlier this year that would eliminate travel restrictions to Cuba for American citizens, and he garnered 54 other co-sponsors, including Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, for his bill. Flake implored Senate leadership to put his legislation on the floor for a vote.

“The bill has 55 total cosponsors and I am convinced it would pass the Senate with upwards of 70 votes,” Flake said in a statement.

But President Trump ignored the wishes of the majority of the Senate to fulfill a campaign pledge for conservative Cubans in South Florida: As part of the policy change, travel to Cuba for American citizens will face increased scrutiny.

“We will enforce the ban on tourism, we will enforce the embargo and we will take concrete steps to insure investments flow directly to the people,” Trump said in Miami on Friday.

As the president doled out heaps of praise for Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the two South Florida Republicans who played an integral role in shaping the revamped Cuba policy, other congressional Republicans began to voice their displeasure.

“I have a bill that would allow Americans to travel freely to Cuba, one of my compatriots has a bill that would allow agricultural exports,” said Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., a proponent of ending the trade embargo. “These are all Republican measures these are all Republican bills. We tried the same approach for 50 years and it didn’t work.”

Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, who represents a state with a large agricultural sector, said the newly announced changes will hurt U.S. businesses seeking to expand abroad.

“Cuba is a natural market for our nation’s farmers and ranchers, and when we don’t sell to Cuba, another country does,” Moran said.

Congressman Justin Amash, R-Mich., said Trump’s Cuba policy changes in the name of promoting human rights are hypocritical in the wake of a foreign trip where the President visited Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally with a well-documented pattern of human rights abuses.

“POTUS’s Cuba policy is not about human rights or security,” Amash tweeted. “If it were, then why is he dancing with the Saudis and selling them weapons?”

But the president does have some Republican allies in Congress outside of South Florida on his Cuba changes.

Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Obama’s Cuba policy “led to more brutality, more repression and more political arrests.”

“The administration is right to sideline the Cuban military and make human rights and internet access top priorities moving forward,” Royce said in a statement.

Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, a Cuban-American who finished as runner-up to Trump in the Republican presidential race, also voiced his support for the changes.

“These are common sense measures I have supported in the past, particularly authoring legislation with Sen. Rubio to prohibit financial transactions with Cuba’s military-controlled entities,” Cruz said in a Facebook post.

A majority of Democrats did not support the altered Cuba policy on Friday, with Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, co-author of Flake’s bill that would end the travel ban, saying the White House has “re-declared war on the Cuban people.”

“This is a hollow retreat from normalization that takes a swipe at Americans’ freedom to travel, at our national interest, and at the people of Cuba who yearn to reconnect with us — all just to score a political favor with a small and dwindling faction here at home,” Leahy said in a statement.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi also panned the change on Friday, calling the change a “job-killing policy that chokes off vital, growing commercial links between the U.S. and Cuba.”

But one at least one Democrat was vocally in favor of Trump’s message: New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, a Cuban-American who frequently works hand in hand with Rubio on Latin American issues.

“Today’s announcement is a step in the right direction to reverse an ill-advised and misguided Cuba policy that has failed to deliver on its promises,” Menendez said. “Those who romanticize present-day Cuba and believe foreign investment will facilitate the country’s transition to democracy, willfully ignore the fact that it is the dictatorship — not the Cuban people — that benefits from their investment.”

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty