POLITICO: Trump packs foreign policy team with Cuba hardliners from Florida

President Trump is poised to promote an international finance official tied to Sen. Marco Rubio to lead Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council, making him the fourth member of an unofficial team of top pro-democracy Cuba hardliners who are executing and advocating for the administration’s Latin American policies.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, an attorney who rose to prominence in conservative foreign policy circles as a writer for the Capitol Hill Cubans blog and as the executive director of the U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC, advised Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. He then joined Trump’s transition team for the U.S. Treasury department, where he later worked on and was instrumental in U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s president, who was labeled a “dictator” by the Trump administration.

Now the acting head of the International Monetary Fund, Claver-Carone will work under National Security Advisor John Bolton and coordinate White House policy with the State, Treasury and other departments. Reached by phone, Claver-Carone said he couldn’t comment.

Claver-Carone joins fellow Cuban-Americans promoted by Trump to execute a hardline foreign policy in which Cuba is seen as a major disruptor in Latin American affairs: Carlos Trujillo (U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States), Eliot Pedrosa (U.S. Alternate Executive Director of the InterAmerican Development Bank) and Tomas Regalado (head of Radio Marti).

That places the president’s foreign policy in the region in the hands of top anti-Castro hardliners in the areas of White House policy, multi-lateral policy, finance and media.

“We have people who understand the cause, and not just the symptoms, of the problems in Latin America – not all the problems — and that is Cuba,” said Otto Reich, who has a long foreign policy resume under former presidents Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush.

“The United States has been a fire brigade in Latin America for the last 60 years and we have ignored, to a large degree, the arsonist,” Reich said. “Look at Venezuela today. The Cubans run the military intelligence systems, strategic comms, the voter rolls, the ports, airports, counter-intelligence police. In Nicaragua, it’s practically the same thing. They’re supporting [Nicaragua President Daniel] Ortega. The Cubans are in Bolivia supporting Evo Morales and they were supporting the violence in Colombia, in Argentina and in Brazil.”

Venezuela’s deteriorating economy and failed-state government is leading to the largest mass-migration in the hemisphere — an estimated 2 million people — and is on pace for an inflation rate of 1 million percent, meaning a person who had $1 million before the crisis hit now has a worth of $1.

Reich, a former ambassador to Venezuela who’s now a lobbyist, said Claver-Carone’s intelligence and background make him ideal to understanding Venezuela’s problems and the influential role of trade and finance in the region. He said his “strong personality” makes him a good fit in national security circles because “it attracts strong personalities.”

Trujillo, for instance, worked with Vice President Mike Pence to persuade a majority of the Organization of American States to vote to eventually expel Venezuela from the organization.

All have close ties to Rubio, who’s playing a central role in setting U.S. policy in Latin America as chair of the Senate’s Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. Rubio has a close relationship with Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who successfully pushed for tougher Venezuela sanctions Rubio had been calling for — including penalties that target a Venezuelan official implicated in an assassination plot against the senator.

Rubio and Florida GOP Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart were architects of Trump’s policy to unwind President Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba, and used as a reference point the “Military Transparency Act” that Rubio had previously written with the input of Claver-Carone.

Claver-Carone was not involved directly in the issue because he was a former registered lobbyist on Cuba-related issues and felt he shouldn’t be involved directly in Cuba policy for two years after entering the administration, according to a knowledgeable source.

Claver-Carone’s former lobbying, blogging and political activity have made him a target of pro-Cuba engagement activists who supported Obama’s policy.

"Claver-Carone built his career peddling campaign cash to dissuade members of Congress from revising our failed Cuban embargo policy,” said James Williams, president of a group called Engage Cuba, who also criticized Claver-Carone for elections and ethics complaints that had been filed against him years ago.

“It's a mistake to appoint someone with such poor judgement and lousy ethics to direct White House policy toward the rest of the Americas, especially at this critical time in the region,” Williams said.

Williams and other activists also noted that Claver-Carone had once called himself a “Never Trump” Republican during the 2016 GOP presidential primary when he backed Sen. Rubio’s failed presidential campaign.

Brian Ballard, Trump’s former Florida lobbyist and a top fundraiser for the president’s 2016 campaign, laughed at the description of Claver-Carone as anti-Trump. Ballard, whose firm also employs Reich as a lobbyist, said Claver-Carone was instrumental in advising the president’s campaign and then his administration.

Along with Trujillo and Pedrosa, Ballard said, Cuba, Venezuela and their allies will become increasingly isolated in the region.

“President Trump’s anti-Castro policy couldn’t be better served than by having three of these important men in such important posts,” Ballard said. “All three have served the country well to rid the hemisphere of the Maduro-Castro axis.”

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