Trump Plans Partial Rollback of Expanded Ties With Cuba

Trump Plans Partial Rollback of Expanded Ties With Cuba
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President Trump’s decision to rewind some of America’s two and a half years of openness with Cuba will not be a wholesale retrenchment of President Obama’s policies, many of which are favored by the business community and among advocates for trade and commerce with the tiny island dictatorship.

“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle 100 percent,” a senior administration official explained Thursday. 

The president, his aides said, will announce in Miami on Friday a partial rollback of his predecessor’s policies, seeking to “empower the Cuban people” while pressing for free elections, release of political prisoners, religious freedom, and greater human rights by cutting off U.S. resources the administration believes wind up supporting military- and intelligence-controlled entities tied to the Castro regime.

The president’s approach is intended to challenge President Raul Castro to negotiate a new agreement with the United States, which Castro says he’s willing to do. 

Trump is expected to announce the United States will end people-to-people travel and impose restrictions on direct financial transactions that benefit the regime, with specifics and certain exemptions to be worked out by the treasury and commerce departments.

The Trump administration will not alter existing allowances that permit Americans to bring goods such as cigars into the country from Cuba, an official said. Obama’s repeal of Cuban immigration privileges known as wet-foot/dry-foot also will not change.

Trump’s political goal: honor a commitment to “reverse” Obama’s “bad deal,” a campaign pledge issued two months before last year’s election during a Miami speech.

“It is a promise that President Trump is keeping,” the senior administration official said on Thursday.

Last fall, Trump appealed to Latinos in South Florida, focusing in particular on Cuban-American conservatives who made up a reliable segment of the GOP base and were receptive to his agenda.

“The president’s one-sided deal for Cuba and with Cuba benefits only the Castro regime,” Trump said at the time. “We are going to stand with the Cuban people in their fight against communist oppression. We’re on the right side.” 

Hillary Clinton won counties in South Florida in November, but lost to Trump statewide by 1 percentage point.

Trump’s appeal to older, anti-Castro Cuban-American conservatives helped the New York businessman put Florida’s 29 Electoral College votes in his column, and he was impressed when he received the endorsement of the Bay of Pigs Veterans’ Association, whose membership he dubbed “freedom fighters.”

But national polls continue to show a large majority of Americans favored the Obama administration’s executive decision to normalize diplomatic relations, and nearly as many supported Obama’s unsuccessful effort to persuade Congress to lift the trade embargo, according to the Pew Research Center.

U.S. business interests -- including in the travel industry, tech firms, agriculture, and the hospitality sector -- lobbied to discourage the administration from severing travel and financial ties with Cuba.

Anticipating that Trump’s decision will be criticized Friday, the administration took pains to say a review of Cuba policy occurred in February and was bolstered by more than a dozen interagency meetings and bipartisan outreach to members of Congress.

Former GOP primary rival Sen. Marco Rubio, paired with Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who endorsed Trump last year, urged the president after January to make good on his vow to crack down on Castro and the Cuban military, arguing the United States was rewarding a dictatorship rather than hastening its demise. They maintained Castro’s repressive governance had only increased since 2014.

Advocates for the Obama policies could not dissuade the president, and some criticized Rubio and Diaz-Balart for horse-trading using unrelated issues of importance to the president, such as the House-passed health care bill and ongoing congressional investigations examining White House actions tied to Russia’s interference with the election. Rubio is a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

"It's a shame that President Trump listened to two hardline members of Congress instead of the majority of his Republican base, the majority of the American people and almost every single Cuban on the island,” James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, said in a Thursday statement. "This is bad policy, bad politics and bad for U.S. business."

The Trump administration’s approach will not entirely turn back the clock to the half-century before Obama ordered full diplomatic relations.

It could take years before the impact of Trump’s policy changes are realized, in part because he is not wiping Obama’s policies away with executive orders, but rather turning to a lengthy rulemaking process that will allow for a transition and negotiations with Havana, officials told reporters. 

The president seeks to avoid “disrupting the existing business that has occurred,” one official said. 

The administration plans to provide policy specifics on the White House website,, on Friday.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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