Trump weighs shift on Cuba

The Hill

President Trump is weighing whether to take a harder line with Cuba, potentially risking the thaw in relations started by the last administration.

But it’s unclear just how far Trump is willing to go in reversing former President Barack Obama’s historic opening with the island nation — an effort that has been widely popular with the U.S. business community and a growing number of GOP lawmakers.

The White House is vigorously debating how to approach its policy with Cuba. Trump is facing pressure from Cuba hard-liners in Congress to scale back Obama's policies, but there are divisions in the administration about what to do, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

The Trump administration said it is near completing a review of Cuba policy and that an announcement will likely be made in the “coming weeks,” but emphasized that a decision has not yet been finalized.

“As the President has said, the current Cuba policy is a bad deal. It does not do enough to support human rights in Cuba,” a spokesperson for the White House said in a statement.

“We are in the final stages of our Cuba policy review. However, a final decision on a path forward has not yet been made. We anticipate an announcement in the coming weeks, but do not have a date for any specific announcements.”

Since Obama opened diplomatic and commercial ties with Cuba in 2014, the U.S. has carried out a string of regulatory changes aimed at bringing the two countries closer together.

Embassies in Havana and Washington reopened, and the U.S. removed Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terror while resuming commercial air service with the island for the first time in more than 50 years.

U.S. tourism to the island is still banned, and the trade embargo has not been lifted, but the U.S. has also removed or lessened most licensing requirements for permitted travel to Cuba, authorized U.S. individuals and businesses to have bank accounts on the island and allowed Cuban textiles, coffee and pharmaceuticals to be imported to the U.S.

But Trump has threatened to reverse Obama’s opening with Cuba if the communist government doesn’t adopt changes.

A source in touch with the administration on the issue described an internal struggle in the Trump administration between “policy and politics” when it comes to Cuba normalization.

During an inter-agency deputies meeting involving all the relevant departments, agency officials expressed support for keeping the current policies intact, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

Another source said Trump’s economic team is likely aware of the potential growth and business opportunities associated with Cuba and pointed out that some Trump officials have close ties to major U.S. business CEOs. The president’s national security advisers, meanwhile, may be warning Trump about the danger of driving Cuba back into the arms of Russia.

But there are other competing voices in the administration that want to take a harder line with Cuba. Mauricio Claver-Carone, the executive director of Cuba Democracy Advocates and an outspoken Cuban government critic, advised the Trump administration when he was on the transition team.

Adding another wrinkle to Trump’s Cuba decision is an apparent behind-the-scenes effort from members of Congress to pressure the White House into rolling back Obama’s Cuba policies in exchange for their support in other areas.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — two lawmakers staunchly opposed to normalizing Cuba relations — have sought assurances from the administration on Cuba, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

Diaz-Balart’s office said he never received any written promises from Trump on Cuba but added that the lawmaker has raised the issue directly with the White House.

“It is my duty to advocate for the issues that are important to my constituents, and I will not apologize for using every available avenue to effectively resolve them,” Diaz-Balart said in a statement. “I am grateful that, unlike the previous administration, senior members of the current administration are responsive and willing to work with Members of Congress.”

“I will never waste an opportunity to fight for the interests of our community and our country,” he added.

Diaz-Balart was on the fence about supporting the House’s healthcare legislation but ultimately voted for it last month after an intense lobbying effort from the White House.

One change on Cuba that Trump seems likely to make is restricting the financial transactions that benefit Cuban military entities, according to two sources and the nonpartisan U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

Rubio has been vocal on that issue in particular, having introduced legislation in the past that would prohibit U.S. financial transactions with Cuban military and security services.

An opponent of the Cuban trade embargo says Trump might reverse Obama’s policy that made it easier to travel to Cuba for 12 permitted reasons under a general license.

The new policy could also include tougher language on human rights and stepped up enforcement to ensure U.S. visitors to Cuba are traveling there legally, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

But while questions remain about Trump’s Cuba policy, lawmakers in favor of engaging with the island are already going on offense.

Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) reintroduced a bill last week that would allow Americans to travel to Cuba for tourism purposes.

The legislation has a total of 55 co-sponsors, including 10 Republicans. When the bill was introduced in the last session of Congress, it had eight original co-sponsors.

James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, hopes the swell of support ramps up pressure on the administration to reconsider cutting commercial and diplomatic ties to the island nation.

“This could not be sending a stronger signal that a bipartisan majority in the U.S. Senate not only doesn’t want Trump to roll back [Obama’s Cuba policies], but to even go further and fully lift travel restrictions,” Williams said in a telephone interview last week.

“As the Trump administration continues to think about what it’s going to do, it would be pretty shocking they would thwart 55 bipartisan senators.”

 

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