Miami Herald: Race to influence the president on Cuba policy heats up

Miami Herald


With an announcement on Cuba policy by President Donald Trump apparently imminent, those for and against engagement are jockeying to get their positions before the president — even his daughter Ivanka.

There has been a flurry of letters to the president this week as Miami awaits Trump’s possible arrival Friday in the capital city of Cuban exiles to announce his recalibration of Cuba policy. Stakeholders who haven’t penned letters to the White House also are trying to make their positions known. 

The letter writers range from Cuba dissidents to a group of professors concerned that a new Cuba policy could hamper scholarly research and educational exchanges with Cuba. A group of 55 Cuban female entrepreneurs also sent their letter to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but they addressed it to first daughter Ivanka Trump, appealing to her businesswomen to businesswoman to make sure the Obama-era opening to the island isn’t closed.

The Cuban American National Foundation hasn’t sent the administration a letter or position paper, partly because with so many unfilled positions in the Trump administration and uncertainty over who is really driving Cuban policy, “the question is who do you talk to?” said José “Pepe” Hernández, president and one of the founders of the exile organization“It’s very confusing, really.”

But the foundation is clear about what it would like to see Trump do on Cuba: “The main thing we want is for him to reaffirm his commitment to protect civil society and opposition activists inside the island,” he said. “We are very concerned that the Castro regime is resolved to destroy the opposition this year.”

Through May of this year, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation has documented 2,240 arbitrary detentions in Cuba for political reasons. That’s significantly less than the number of arrests for the first five months of 2016, but Hernández said repression is intensifying. “I presume they want to clear the way for a new leader who will take power in 2018,” he said.

Still, Hernández said the foundation supports engagement with the Cuban people and maintaining diplomatic relations with Havana. 

“We would certainly see it as a negative move if the administration decides to return to the isolation of the Cuban people from their friends and relatives in the United States,” he said.

It’s unclear what measures the U.S. administration may adopt, but more limitations on travel and trade — including limiting the ability of U.S. businesses to strike deals with any enterprises controlled by the Cuban military — have been discussed.

While Hernández said blacklisting Cuban military operations would send an important message to the Cuban government, he said the foundation doesn’t want the Trump administration to cut back on Americans’ ability to send remittances and travel to the island.

The Cuban Democratic Directorate, however, said it would like a reversal of the Obama administration policy “of unilateral granting of unconditional benefits and concessions toward the Castro regime, a regime that will never be a friend of the United States and which denies all basic rights and liberties for the Cuban people.”

Republican Gov. Rick Scott also chimed in on the Cuba issue during a visit to Miami on Tuesday. “What President Obama did didn’t work. They haven’t opened up democracy; they don’t have more freedom,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing the president’s policy. It’s going to open a new chapter.”

“The fact that Obama’s approach hasn’t led to political reform in Cuba after just a few years isn’t reason to return to a policy that proved a costly failure over many decades,” said Daniel Wilkinson, managing director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch. “The previous administration was right to reject a policy that hurt ordinary Cubans and did nothing to advance human rights.”

Some recent letter-writers to the president would like to see the policy of engagement continue. A group of nearly 150 American scholars and educators from institutions across the United States signed a letter urging the president not to reverse Obama-era policies. They said it is un-American to restrict travel, that it could have negative hemispheric consequences, and that further pressure on Cuban leader Raúl Castro could make it more difficult for him to turn over the presidency to a successor in 2018 as he has publicly promised. 

Trump’s policy on Cuba, the letter said, “is not just about the freedom of the Cuban people. It is about ours.”

The Cuban entrepreneurs — who own restaurants, boutique hotels, bed and breakfasts, shops, and other businesses — told Ivanka Trump they feared that Cuba policy might be “headed backward, in turn threatening our economic livelihoods and the overall well-being of Cubans on and off the island.” 

A setback in U.S.-Cuba relations, they said, “would bring with it the fall of many of our businesses.” They appealed to Ivanka Trump to understand the importance that “the exchange of trade, people and ideas represents for our businesses” and invited her to visit them in Cuba.

While there’s still much speculation about the final direction the president’s Cuba policy might take, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may have provided a clue Tuesday during his congressional testimony on the State Department’s Fiscal 2018 budget proposal. 

“The general approach is to allow as much of this continued commercial engagement activity to go on as possible,” he said.

Pedro Freyre, a Miami lawyer who has represented cruise lines and other U.S. businesses that have done deals with Cuba under the Obama opening, said they, too, are trying to get the president’s attention. 

“Business interests that have been active in Cuba in agriculture, airlines, cruise lines, travel companies and pharmaceutical companies have made their views known to the White House and are working hard to make sure the president keeps the interests of American business in mind.”