Cuba tries to figure out political standing in Trump era

Las banderas en miniatura que representan a Cuba y los Estados Unidos se muestran en el tablero de un clásico automóvil estadounidense en La Habana en marzo.
Las banderas en miniatura que representan a Cuba y los Estados Unidos se muestran en el tablero de un clásico automóvil estadounidense en La Habana en marzo. AP

Alarmed by signs that its fragile relationship with the United States might fall apart under President-elect Donald Trump, the Cuban government is quietly reaching out to its contacts in the United States to determine how best to protect the communist regime’s tenuous diplomatic position.

The Cubans are trying to figure out who Trump is, what his real thinking about Cuba might be and how they might be heard by his fledgling administration.

Los cubanos están cagados,” — the Cubans are shitting themselves — said a businessman who regularly meets with Cuban government officials and told the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald they contacted him after Trump’s victory. “They have no communication channels to Trump.”

Among the sources who told the Herald that they’ve spoken to the Cuban government are middlemen and representatives of U.S. business and civic interests in Cuba. All requested anonymity for fear of appearing overly friendly with Cuba’s communist regime. The Cuban government did not respond to a request for comment sent to its embassy in Washington.

“We’ve told them they have to wait and see,” said an advocate of more U.S. engagement with Cuba who said Cubans want a better read of the political landscape under Trump. “It’s still too early.”

Cuban officials have telephoned and, in some cases, met in person with Americans closely involved with business or advocacy groups that support increasing ties between the two countries. The Americans have consistently told Cubans they need to hurry to complete pending commercial agreements with U.S. companies to further solidify the reestablished relations — and make it more difficult for a Trump administration to undo them.

The Cubans’ chief problem: The contacts they’ve spent years cultivating had the ear of President Barack Obama’s administration. No one close to Trump is — at least publicly — an advocate for their cause.

“They did not anticipate a President-elect Trump,” said Jorge Mas Santos, president of the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami.

Pro-engagement forces don’t have an in with Trump, either.

“I don’t think that there’s anyone inside at this point that presents the balanced view that needs to be presented,” said Mike Fernández, a Coral Gables healthcare executive and major Republican advocate for Obama’s Cuba opening. “Right now, I think the other side does have an upper hand.”

In contrast, Cuba hardliners have several voices close to Trump — including Vice President-elect Mike Pence, a former Indiana congressman.

“He’s 100 percent a freedom fighter,” said former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, whose Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute honored Pence in 2010. “He’s met with former political prisoners. He knows the issue.”

Pence is known to exchange text messages on occasion with U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the only sitting Miami Republican in Congress who voted for Trump. Diaz-Balart declined to discuss his texting habits but said he speaks regularly with several Trump transition team members.

“Mario Diaz-Balart is our guy: We have designated him as our guy to deal with the Trump folks,” said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who called Pence the locals’ “conduit,” though she doesn’t agree with him on everything.

On Cuba, however, “he agrees with us,” she said. “We’ve worked very closely with him through the years.” She and her husband once took Pence and his family boating on Biscayne Bay, she said.

Trump’s transition is teeming with other strident Cuba conservatives: James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation is on the State Department team; Mauricio Claver-Carone of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC is on the Treasury Department team; U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes of California is on the executive team. Trump’s also getting advice from Cuban Americans such as Miami attorney A.J. Delgado, Harvard lecturer Carlos Díaz Rosillo, and Yleem Poblete, former chief of staff to the House Foreign Affairs Committee under Ros-Lehtinen.

No one has been assigned specifically to the Cuba portfolio, a responsibility that will likely fall on whoever gets to run the Western Hemisphere desk in Trump’s State Department. Among the four finalists for secretary of state are former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Republican nominee Mitt Romney, both beloved by hardliners. Trump met Friday with another of their favorites, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.

Yet another contender, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, is considered by the pro-engagement crowd as the candidate most likely to hear them out. Corker quietly traveled to Havana last month and met with both Cuban government officials and political dissidents.

Pro-engagement activists have raised the specter of a mass Cuban migration if Trump provokes Raúl Castro with, say, a tweet — and Castro responds by opening the island’s maritime borders, a nightmare scenario experienced by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Advocates who pushed for the Cuba thaw hold out hope that Trump will act more like a businessman than like a politician when it comes to Cuba. As president-elect, Trump has pledged to “terminate” Obama’s policy unless Cuba makes significant concessions. As a real-estate developer, Trump explored business opportunities in Cuba, to the point that he might have violated the U.S. trade embargo in 1998.

Reverting to old policy would hurt the Cuban people, the advocates argue, and give an excuse to Fidel Castro loyalists within Raúl Castro’s government — who have always been suspicious of U.S. overtures — to halt economic reforms.

“The message we must send Trump is that if he closes everything off, he’s going to destroy the lives of entrepreneurs who already have their little business, and it’s going to prompt the Cuban hierarchy to return to its bunker because they’ve known how to survive worse,” said Carlos Saladrigas, president of the Cuba Study Group, which promotes more U.S.-Cuba ties. “The person who was the epicenter of the hardline has died, which opens up a path for reformer elements in the government to make progress. Now’s not the time to close them off.”

Though pro-engagement activists are preparing for what they consider the worst-case scenario — four years in the political wilderness — some also think hardliners convinced Trump will trash all of Obama’s actions are overplaying their political hand.

“The ultra-conservatives are going to have a real tough time,” said Joe Arriola, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Public Health Trust. “They talk big now, they talk tough now, but I don’t think Trump is going to change everything. There will be changes — it’s not going to be the same. But the American public does not believe in the freaking embargo.”

Undoing all of Obama’s measures would make less sense now that Fidel Castro is dead and Raúl Castro has announced his retirement in February 2018, several activists said.

“Castro’s death represents a real opportunity for change,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who like a number of other Republicans outside of South Florida actively backed both Trump and closer U.S.-Cuba ties. “Both camps, as seemingly divided as they may be, want the same thing, which is change in Cuba and change for the Cuban people.”

Moderate voices are also trying to make inroads with Trump and his advisers, including Brian Ballard, a finance vice-chair for the inauguration who knows activists on all sides of the Cuba issue from his years of representing lobbying clients across Florida.

Among the moderates are Cuban Americans like Mas Santos, who knows Trump personally. The Cuban American National Foundation invited Trump to Miami in 1999 to address Cuba policy, a speech many Miami Cuban Americans cite as a reason for backing Trump.

Mas Santos predicted Trump will push for more concessions from Cuba — and get them.

“Cuba needs this more than the United States,” he said, adding that the Cuban government’s silence following Trump’s election was notable. “I think it’s very significant and very telling that there’s really been no reference to Trump from the Cuban regime over the past three weeks.”

Bertica Morris, a Cuban-American political consultant in Orlando who served as one of Trump’s campaign surrogates, said Trump should push Cuba to reciprocate without doing away with Obama’s policy, which would mark a return to a Bush-era approach.

“Trump said he’s going to try to make a better deal — that’s normal — but I hope he’s not going to reverse it all,” she said. “He’s a businessman. I think he’s going to look at what’s happening and what he can negotiate.”

Former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, another Orlando Cuban-American Republican, said he might be the sort of person who could fill a middle-ground role in any Cuba policy dialogue. He and Morris have discussed that approach, he said, and Martinez has been in occasional touch with some Trump transition members.

“I would take the approach of looking at what has taken place, what seems to work, and what doesn’t seem to work,” said Martinez, who didn’t support Trump during the Republican primary but ultimately voted for him in the general election.

“What an unusual moment we have now, with Fidel passing. Inevitably, in Cuba, they’ve got to be thinking this through,” he added. “I don’t think they have a clue.”