WASHINGTON — For months, Marco Rubio has been working closely behind the scenes with the White House to shape the administration’s policy toward Cuba. Few issues are as personal to the Florida senator as the future of a country his parents once called home.
When President Trump travels to Miami Friday to announce a pullback from relations with the communist island nation 90 miles from Key West, Rubio will be there both as an advocate for the changes and as an architect of the policy Trump will unveil.
“I am confident that I will be very pleased with what the president will announce Friday,” the senator said in an interview Tuesday. “I want to support the Cuban people and their aspirations for economic and political freedom and I always have been.”
Rubio would not reveal details of the new policy which has also been crafted with guidance from Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami. But reports suggest it won’t be a wholesale rollback of the policies President Obama enacted when he began easing diplomatic, economic and travel restrictions in December 2014.
The embassies that were reopened in Havana and Washington will likely remain open, and the governments are expected to continue working on a variety of diplomatic issues. Cuba experts believe Trump will focus on smaller changes that will make it more difficult for Americans to travel to Cuba and for U.S. businesses to do business directly with the Cuban government.
Whatever the changes look like, it will be a departure from Obama's strategy of engagement. His administration argued that 50 years of diplomatic isolation had done nothing to end the rule of Fidel Castro, who died in November, and that engaging and empowering Cuban citizens was a more effective way of getting the communist government to change its ways.
Trump’s revamped policy is expected to reflect Rubio’s influence, specifically rules he proposed in a 2015 bill to ensure that any increase in U.S. resources to Cuba reach the Cuban people by prohibiting financial transactions with the Castro regime’s military and security services.
“It is not in the interest of the United States or the people of Cuba for the U.S. to become a financier of the Castro regime’s brutality,” Rubio said at the time he introduced the measure.
But Trump’s willingness to give a former presidential rival whom he openly mocked on the campaign trail a leading role on an important foreign policy issue has prompted accusations from supporters of broader Cuba engagement that the senator has grown too cozy with the White House.
Specifically, they believe the president is trying to pressure Rubio, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating Russia’s interference in last year’s election and any ties Moscow had with the Trump campaign.
That criticism heated up last week when Rubio grilled former FBI director James Comey at a hearing Thursday into the Russian probe two days after dining at the White House with Trump.
During the hearing, Rubio wanted to know why the only news from the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s hacking of the November elections that wasn’t being leaked was the fact that Trump himself was not under investigation. Some Democrats derided Rubio, a hawk on Russia, for assuming the role of the president’s defense attorney.
The Florida senator took umbrage at the characterization. But those opposing any rollback of Cuba policies pounced on Rubio for his aggressive handling of Comey, accusing him of suddenly protecting Trump because of the access the president was giving him to shape Cuba policies.
“At the very least, this at least creates a perception of impropriety,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a coalition of private businesses and companies working to lift the travel and trade embargo on Cuba.
Collin Laverty, who runs Cuba Educational Travel which organizes educational exchange programs between the U.S. and Cuba, said allowing Rubio to have influence over Cuba policy while investigating Russian collusion in the Trump campaign “at the very least has an appearance of a conflict of interest.”
In his interview Tuesday, Rubio laughed off the suggestion he was going soft on Trump over Moscow in an attempt to assertcontrol over U.S. policy toward the Castro regime.
“Don’t worry. Russia’s against the changes (in Cuba) I’m for as well,” the senator said. “People can say whatever they want. I can’t control that ... People who make those accusations don’t like anything (he does) so it doesn’t really matter. It’s a free country, unlike Cuba.”