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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