GOP Wary of Quick Cuba Policy Rollback

Most Republicans don’t like Obama’s approach to Cuba, but that doesn’t mean they—or Donald Trump—will immediately reverse it.

Onlookers await a motorcade carrying Fidel Castro's remains in Havana on Wednesday.
AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko
Alex Rogers
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Alex Rogers
Nov. 30, 2016, 8 p.m.

After the death of Fi­del Castro, Pres­id­ent-elect Don­ald Trump quickly con­demned the long­time Cuban lead­er’s leg­acy “of fir­ing squads, theft, un­ima­gin­able suf­fer­ing, poverty, and the deni­al of fun­da­ment­al hu­man rights.” The re­marks were well re­ceived by Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress, who deemed Pres­id­ent Obama’s bland con­dol­ences to the Cuban people as a pathet­ic con­ceal­ment of a tyr­ant’s ter­rible re­cord.

But Trump didn’t—and has yet to—ex­plain ex­actly how U.S.-Cuba re­la­tions will dif­fer un­der his pres­id­ency. And some key Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress have so far res­isted call­ing for a com­plete over­haul of Obama’s his­tor­ic policy of en­gage­ment with Cuba, des­pite their past vo­cal op­pos­i­tion to it.

In in­ter­views this week, Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Ru­bio, two Cuban-Amer­ic­ans and harsh crit­ics of Obama, did not say wheth­er they would or would not want the U.S. to cut off dip­lo­mat­ic ties, which the U.S. and Cuba agreed to re­store in 2015. Last year, Ru­bio said he’d re­verse the de­cision to re­open an em­bassy in Havana if elec­ted pres­id­ent, while Cruz said he’d work as a sen­at­or to dis­ap­prove fund­ing for it.

Oth­er Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors on the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee—Sens. Ron John­son, Johnny Isak­son, and John Bar­rasso—also wouldn’t dir­ectly an­swer the ques­tion this week, want­ing to wait to hear more spe­cif­ics from the in­com­ing Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“We’ve got a new pres­id­ent com­ing in, we’ve got an old dic­tat­or gone, we’ve got a lot of Cuban-Amer­ic­an in­terests,” said Isak­son. “I’ll wait and be guided by what hap­pens. Ac­cord­ingly, I don’t want to pree­mpt either the new pres­id­ent on what his new for­eign policy po­s­i­tions are go­ing to be or the Cuban-Amer­ic­ans at this point.”

Des­pite the con­cerns about open­ing up re­la­tions with the re­press­ive Castro re­gime, which is now led by Fi­del’s broth­er Raúl, busi­nesses from the ag­ri­cul­tur­al to the tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions in­dus­tries are in­ter­ested in ex­pand­ing in­to the Cuban mar­ket. And some mem­bers of Con­gress be­lieve that U.S. dip­lomacy and busi­ness in­terests will yield hu­man­it­ari­an gains in Cuba and for­eign policy be­ne­fits for Amer­ica.

“One thing you don’t want to do is go back to the policies of the last sev­er­al dec­ades that have not worked,” Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Demo­crat on the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “What we did was isol­ate Amer­ica in our own hemi­sphere.”

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s secret ne­go­ti­ations with Cuba over the past few years have pro­duced ab­rupt changes. Com­mer­cial flights have re­sumed for the first time in five dec­ades. Star­wood Ho­tels and Car­ni­val have ex­pan­ded to Cuba, which is look­ing to triple its rev­en­ue from the tour­ism in­dustry over the next 15 years, ac­cord­ing to the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. While the travel ban and em­bargo are still in ef­fect, Amer­ic­ans can now travel there for “people-to-people edu­ca­tion” and bring back as much rum and as many ci­gars as they like.

Trump can uni­lat­er­ally dir­ect vari­ous de­part­ments to undo what Obama has done, but ad­voc­ates and even some de­tract­ors of Obama’s strategy say it’ll be dif­fi­cult now that U.S. com­pan­ies and cit­izens have taken a great­er in­terest in Cuba. In an in­ter­view, Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Jeff Flake doubted Trump would re­voke what were in his mind some of the biggest changes: the meas­ures mak­ing it easi­er to travel there and to de­crease the now-un­res­tric­ted re­mit­tances to Cuban na­tion­als. “To roll back that would be really tough,” he said.

While Flake is per­haps the most high-pro­file Re­pub­lic­an sup­port­er of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s out­reach to Cuba, his op­tim­ism gains more cre­dence by the hard-liners’ hes­it­ancy to un­der­mine it. When asked if the U.S. should cut off dip­lo­mat­ic re­la­tions—re­turn­ing the re­la­tion­ship between the two coun­tries to what it was be­fore Obama—Sen. Dav­id Per­due, an­oth­er Re­pub­lic­an mem­ber of the For­eign Re­la­tions com­mit­tee, quickly replied, “It is what it is.” He then ad­ded that the U.S. needs to be “very care­ful about con­tinu­ing to open up any re­la­tion­ship with them un­til we see pro­gress on the hu­man-rights side.”

So far, the pres­id­ent-elect’s views have been hard to de­cipher. In Septem­ber 2015, Trump said he wanted a stronger “deal”—that the old policies had las­ted long “enough”—and that the concept of open­ing up to Cuba was “fine.” Yet just this week, Trump tweeted, “If Cuba is un­will­ing to make a bet­ter deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/Amer­ic­an people and the U.S. as a whole, I will ter­min­ate deal.”

His in­com­ing team might be split as well. Trump’s new deputy na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser, K.T. Mc­Far­land, wrote on her web­site in 2014 that Obama’s en­gage­ment with Cuba was “the right thing to do—but not for the reas­ons he gave,” warn­ing of the dangers of Rus­sia or China de­vel­op­ing a closer re­la­tion­ship to Cuba. The site was taken down after Na­tion­al Journ­al emailed Mc­Far­land for com­ment.

Some mem­bers of Trump’s staff, however, clearly op­pose Obama’s dip­lo­mat­ic ef­forts with Cuba. Trump’s new na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser, re­tired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, con­siders Cuba an ally of rad­ic­al Is­lam. Trump’s pick to be CIA dir­ect­or, Rep. Mike Pom­peo, sharply cri­ti­cizes Obama’s Cuban policy, as does Maur­i­cio Claver-Car­one, a new mem­ber of the trans­ition team for the Treas­ury De­part­ment.

Trump will also be un­der pres­sure from some con­ser­vat­ives who would like him to tar­get vari­ous as­pects of Obama’s strategy. Cruz has re­cently called for the U.S. to end mil­it­ary and counter-nar­cot­ic en­gage­ments with Cuba.

Oth­ers have called for broad­er changes. Mike Gonza­lez, a seni­or fel­low at the Her­it­age Found­a­tion, said the pres­id­ent-elect should end com­mer­cial flights to Cuba, en­force travel re­stric­tions, and send a mor­al state­ment by hold­ing a high-pro­file meet­ing with Cuban dis­sid­ents. “The first thing is change the tone to­ward the re­gime and the op­pos­i­tion,” wrote Gonza­lez in an email.

Re­ports by Bloomberg and New­s­week have in­dic­ated that Trump’s com­pany has long held a com­mer­cial in­terest in the is­land, even as Trump con­tin­ued to pub­licly cri­ti­cize the Castro re­gime.

“Of course, we should keep the em­bargo in place,” Trump wrote in a 1999 Miami Her­ald op-ed. “We should keep it un­til Castro is gone.”

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