The Miami Herald
By: Mimi Whitefield
The Obama administration has worked until its final days to try to ensure the continuity of its Cuba policy, but Ben Rhodes, one of the chief architects of the rapprochement with the island, says he's still not sure what approach Donald Trump will take after he's sworn in as the nation's 45th president on Friday.
The administration has briefed the incoming Trump team on the goals of its Cuba policy and tried to make the argument that engagement with Cuba is in the best interest of the Cuban people as well as the United States. In the final news conference of his administration Wednesday, Obama reiterated his rationale for the “monumental shift” in U.S. Cuba policy that began on Dec. 17, 2014.
The Trump team also was notified in advance of last week's decision to end the wet foot, dry foot policy and deport Cubans who enter the United States without a visa, said Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, during a briefing at the Washington Foreign Press Center this week.
“They did not express any opposition to that change,” Rhodes said, adding that his hope was that the U.S. government, Central American governments and the Cuban government would work together to see if they could provide some type of humanitarian assistance to Cubans already in the migratory pipeline when the policy changed abruptly.
This week, Cubans en route to the United States before the policy shift was announced began gathering near the Mexican border with the United States, hoping that the Trump administration might grant them an amnesty.
In its final days in office, the Obama administration tied up loose ends and tried to solidify the new relationship with Cuba by finishing up negotiations and signing new cooperation agreements with Havana. In the 18 months since the two countries resumed diplomatic relations, 21 such agreements have been signed on topics ranging from counter-narcotics cooperation and environmental and marine protection to resumption of direct mail service and civil aviation.
But despite meetings with the Trump team, Rhodes said: “I can’t say for certain what the incoming team’s approach is going to be. There’s been a diversity of views expressed by both the president-elect and members his team.”
Trump was initially supportive of the rapprochement but said he would get a better deal. Then he said he would terminate the new relationship if Cuba was unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, Cuban Americans and the U.S. as a whole. Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said during his Senate confirmation hearing that all of Obama’s executive orders on Cuba would be among those the Trump administration planned to review.
“They can choose to emphasize different things than we did, but my hope and expectation is that it’s sufficiently in America’s interest that they continue, at least, important elements of what we’re doing and recognize the cost of seeking to turn back other elements,” said Rhodes, who spent a few days in Havana during Obama’s last week in office.
In making the case to the Trump administration for keeping Obama’s Cuba policy intact, Rhodes said the Obama administration stressed “that their focus on economic and commercial opportunities for the United States in our foreign policy should correspond with what we’re trying to do in opening up more space for American businesses and American travel to Cuba.”
The potential benefits of such policies, he said, “are consistent with their expressed view of the foreign policy priority of promoting American jobs and American businesses.”
Rhodes said the Obama administration also made the point that “Cuba policy cannot be seen in isolation from our policy in Latin America, in that we have removed a very significant irritant between the United States and the countries of our hemisphere. If we were to roll back the Cuba policy, I think that would have repercussions not just in Cuba, but it would significantly set back our position and our ability to cooperate with countries across the hemisphere.”
In the weeks leading up to the inauguration, groups for and against rapprochement have been trying to put a bug in Trump's ear.
The latest groups trying to sway Trump are a nationwide agriculture coalition and a coalition of groups that favor engagement with Cuba.
In late December, a letter signed by five former ambassadors with experience in the Americas criticized what they called “President Obama's ill-conceived and unlawful executive orders” allowing more commercial ties with Cuba and asked for a “course correction” on U.S. relations with Cuba during Trump's first 100 days.
Obama’s economic opening to Cuba, the group wrote, “has had the effect of giving a new economic leases on life to the regime, emboldening it to curtail, not expand, private economic activity on the island while increasing its repression of the dissident movement.”
Rhodes said the administration shared “concerns about the human rights situation in Cuba. Our belief continues to be that we’re better positioned to address those with an embassy, with relationships with the Cuban government.”
Obama said at his news conference that despite disagreements with Cuba over political repression, treatment of dissenters and freedom of the press and freedom of religion, “our best shot” is “having the Cuban people interacting with Americans and seeing the incredible success of Cuban Americans,” and “engaging in commerce and business and trade.”
This week, the Miami-based Cuba Study Group in collaboration with 13 other groups, including the National Foreign Trade Council, the Washington Office on Latin America, Engage Cuba, The U.S. Cuba Business Council and the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, sent a memo to Trump making a case for engagement.
After a review of current policy, the memo said, “We are confident that a close evaluation will confirm that constructive engagement — including the reduction of travel and commercial barriers — is the best strategy for supporting the Cuban people and boosting U.S. jobs and exports.”
A coalition of more than 100 agriculture, trade and commerce businesses and associations also urged Trump to keep Obama policies in place and build on the U.S. trade relationship with Cuba.
“As a broad cross-section of rural America, we urge you not to take steps to reverse progress made in normalizing relations with Cuba, and also solicit your support for the agricultural business sector to expand trade with Cuba to help American farmers and our associated industries,” said the letter whose signatories included USA Rice, the American Farm Bureau Federation and Hormel Foods Corp.
The letter to Trump said that net U.S. farm income is down 46 percent from three years ago and that the “importance of trade to America’s farmers and ranchers cannot be overstated.” They asked Trump for help in seeking the removal of financing restrictions and other barriers to trade with Cuba, which imports nearly 80 percent of its food.
The Cuban market’s “proximity to U.S. ports allows for considerably lower shipping costs and shorter delivery times than our foreign competitors,” the letter stated. “The logistical advantages alone should make Cuba a common-sense partner for two-way commerce.”
Meanwhile, in Cuba’s Pinar del Río province, Santa Blanco Echevarria and her family work a small tobacco plot and sell their production to the state. She, too, hopes the rapprochement will continue under Trump.
“I’m very happy to have relations with the United States,” said Blanco, 72. “When President Obama came here he was very well-received by the Cuban people.
“I would like Donald Trump to continue relations with Cuba and extend them even more,” she said. “I hope our two presidents get along.”