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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