On Cuba, Hardliners Show Patience With Trump

The president hasn’t done much yet to reverse Obama’s policies, but advocates for a tougher stance are sure he will.

People spend the afternoon sitting on the Havana seawall in Cuba on Nov. 9, 2016.
AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa
Adam Wollner
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Adam Wollner
May 24, 2017, 8 p.m.

President Obama had plenty of fierce Republican critics on Capitol Hill when it came to his Cuba policy. Now those voices are demonstrating patience as President Trump develops his own.

It’s been nearly four months since White House press secretary Sean Spicer announced that the administration was conducting a “full review” of U.S. policy towards the Communist-ruled Caribbean island, and there still is no set timeline for when that review will be completed. Still, congressional Republican hard-liners on Cuba say they are not concerned that Trump has yet to announce his policy, and remain confident he will live up to his campaign promise to roll back his predecessors’ moves to normalize relations with Cuba.

“I’m 1,000 percent sure the president is going to deliver on his commitment,” said Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American from Miami. “I have no doubt that you’re going to see in short order a different policy.”

Over the course of his second term in the Oval Office, Obama took several steps to reverse decades of precedent and thaw U.S. relations with Cuba. He reached an agreement with Cuban president Raúl Castro that paved the way for easing U.S. trade and travel restrictions to Cuba, reopening embassies in Washington and Havana, and removing Cuba from the state-sponsors-of-terrorism list, among other changes. Obama even became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in 2016.

At the outset of the presidential campaign, Trump was on board with some of Obama’s Cuba policy moves. But by the time the general election rolled around, Trump was criticizing the “concessions” that Obama made to Castro and pledging to reverse his executive orders. After Fidel Castro’s death last November, 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.” And last week Francisco Palmieri, the acting assistant secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, said Trump’s policy would have “important differences” with Obama’s.

While the specific steps that Trump will take to undo Obama’s Cuba policies remain unclear, Cuban hard-liners in the GOP believe he will fall in line with them.

“I’m hopeful we will see a far more clear-eyed policy towards the oppression and tyranny of Raúl Castro than we did under the prior administration,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, a Cuban-American from Texas. “We need an administration that will seek to promote freedom and prevent Cuba from funding terrorism and threatening the security of America.”

Several Republicans on the Hill, including Cruz, Diaz-Balart, Sen. Marco Rubio, and Rep. Carlos Curbelo, said in interviews that they have been in contact with the administration regarding its Cuba policy over the past few months. Curbelo, a Cuban-American from Miami, said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin recently told him there would be a Cuba-policy announcement in the coming weeks. “Sometime over the summer is safe to say,” Curbelo said.

“I’m sure it will be what I would consider a correction of the policy,” he added. “I don’t think that initially it will be overly ambitious, probably more modest. Certainly, I think there will be a strong message that policy of unilateral concessions has come to an end. I think anything that really holds a dictatorship accountable would really be an improvement.”

Like Curbelo, other Republicans say they aren’t worried about the pace at which the White House is conducting its Cuba-policy review. They recognize that with multiple Russia investigations, Trump’s first foreign trip, and budget, health care, and tax-reform negotiations, the president has a full plate at the moment.

Asked when he would like to see the policy announced, Cruz responded: “I am hopeful sooner than later. But there’s a lot happening in the world.”

At this stage, Rubio, a Cuban-American, said the White House “know[s] where I stand on Cuba.

“I’d rather do it right than do it quickly,” Rubio said. “I feel pretty good about it, but I don’t know about the timing.”

There was some anticipation that the administration might roll out its new policy ahead of May 20, Cuban Independence Day. Trump, who was traveling abroad that day, put out a statement marking the occasion, but did not hint at any forthcoming policy changes.

More immediately, some Republicans raised concerns over the lack of United States Agency for International Development funding for Cuba in the administration’s newly released budget proposal. Cuban-American Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican, said the removal of funds for democracy-building programs in countries like Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua is the “wrong move at the wrong time.

“I feel confident that we will restore funding in those much-needed programs,” she added. “It was a slash-and-burn all across the budget.”

Obama and his advisers sought to make their Cuba-policy changes “irreversible,” and not every Republican wants to roll them back. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, for example, has notably advocated opening up relations with Cuba, as have some GOP lawmakers from agriculture-producing states.

“Congress has a voice here if it wants to exercise it,” said Ted Piccone, a former Clinton administration official who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The bipartisan consensus is moving much more in the direction of normalization.”

Daniel Newhauser contributed to this article.
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