President Donald Trump has a draft plan that would at least partially reverse the Obama administration’s decision to ease Cuba restrictions. But even some of his trusted advisers are wondering whether they can bank on it, given the president’s history of changing his mind on the fly.
According to people familiar with White House deliberations on Cuba policy, Trump is expected to prohibit companies from doing business with the small country’s military, tighten travel to the island and possibly set conditions on the communist government if Havana wants to maintain diplomatic relations.
That kind of plan, if it sees the light of day, could be welcome news for South Florida Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who have been lobbying the White House to impose more restrictions. But it could hurt the American agriculture and tourism industries, whose executives tell McClatchy they have been pushing the Trump administration to keep newly opened, and potentially lucrative, business lanes open.
I believe in nothing until the president says it because of what we’ve seen, especially with what happened with the Article 5 and NATO.
Someone familiar with White House discussions
Advisers, having seen how the fight for influence among factions within the administration has played out on other controversial issues, such as support for NATO, say they won’t truly know until the words come out of the president’s mouth. Certainly, the group seeking a return to tighter restrictions knows there is a rival contingent inside the White House that opposes Trump’s campaign promise to roll back parts of former President Barack Obama’s opening to the island.
“I believe in nothing until the president says it because of what we’ve seen, especially with what happened with the Article 5 and NATO,” said a source familiar with the administration’s discussions about Cuba. “The president was going to come out with a statement that he supported Article 5 and collective defense and then at the last second, certain elements at the White House got to him and he didn't say that.”
The announcement is expected to be made by Trump on Friday in Miami.
The administration is keeping largely mum on the specifics, sharing details only at the margins with a handful of advisers.
A White House official confirmed that senior officials met Tuesday afternoon to try and finalize the Cuba policy, but said they have yet to “put a bow on it.”
“In general, it’s risky to get ahead of the final product,” that White House official said Tuesday.
That person reiterated what the president has said: Trump thinks Obama’s policy was “a bad deal” that “doesn’t do enough on human rights.”
The business community is pressuring the former real estate mogul to follow his business instincts and not reverse the course set by Obama. There have been significant business investments, including daily flights, cruise stops and agricultural initiatives.
Ken Wood, a wheat farmer and president of the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers, said local farmers are particularly concerned, considering the growing importance of selling their product overseas. About half of the nation’s two billion bushels of wheat is sold overseas.
“Trade is really our life blood here,” Wood said, adding. “It’s a close market for us. They would like to have our wheat. It would be a pretty easy shot for us to send it down to the Mississippi and then across the Gulf to Cuba. So we’d have an advantage logistically over a lot of countries.”
Airbnb, one of the first U.S. companies to offer accommodations to Cuba for U.S. travelers, has also raised concerns. In a letter to Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., other Cuba working group members, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Airbnb said the Cuban people have made $40 million by hosting U.S. families.
“We've spoken with Democrats and Republicans and hope any policy changes support people-to-people diplomacy and the individual Cubans and their families who have been empowered by the chance to earn money and share their space, culture and community with travelers from around the world,” said Nick Papas, a spokesman for AirBnB.
Polls suggest a majority of Americans support greater engagement with Cuba. A Florida International University poll last year showed that 56 percent of Cuban Americans in Miami also favor reengagement with Cuba.
The uncertainty over what Trump will do is understandable. Trump was inconsistent on Cuba during the campaign.
During the Republican primaries, he repeatedly said he supported the idea of restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, but criticized Obama for not striking a better deal.
I’m absolutely sure the president is going to do what he said he’s going to do.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart
It was during the general election, with the Florida vote in play, when Trump shifted to a tougher line. During a September trip to Miami, he promised the traditionally conservative Cuban-American population that he’d reverse Obama’s appeals to Cuba unless the communist government under Raul Castro freed political prisoners and restored religious and political freedoms.
“All of the concessions Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were done through executive order, which means the next president can reverse them, and that I will do unless the Castro regime meets our demands,” Trump said at a campaign event. “Not my demands – our demands.”
Cuban-American lawmakers, including Rubio and Diaz-Balart, have maintained heavy pressure on Trump to fulfill those promises.
They have long argued that Obama went too far, fiddled with laws that Congress would never pass and didn’t take into account human rights.
“I’m absolutely sure the president is going to do what he said he’s going to do, which is a policy based on U.S. national security interests, human rights and enforcing the law, not skirting the law,” Diaz-Balart said.
Former ambassador Otto Reich, who served as assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere during the first term of President George W. Bush, called it refreshing that Trump is fulfilling campaign promises when the public has become cynical about politicians doing exactly the opposite.
Whatever Trump does, he’s going to be criticized, Reich said. He noted how Trump was criticized for not moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem despite widely held views from many who thought such a move was a bad idea.
“If he had done it, he would have been criticized for moving it to Jerusalem,” Reich said. “I think they’ve come to the conclusion of why moderate their positions. They don’t get any credit for ‘moderating their positions.’ So they might as well do what they said they’re going to do and solidify their base.”