Two months after the Trump administration announced a total review of U.S. policy toward Cuba, several controversial proposals are being circulated at the White House with no clear front-runner on the issue.
But Sen. Marco Rubio says he has spoken with Trump three times about Cuba.
“We’ve been walking through all these issues with the president and his team, figuring out the right steps to take and when,” Rubio told el Nuevo Herald.
“I am confident that President Trump will treat Cuba like the dictatorship it is and that our policy going forward will reflect the fact that it is not in the national interest of the United States for us to be doing business with the Cuban military,” he added.
The Miami Republican of Cuban descent declined to say whether the president had made any commitments to him on Cuba policies. But a Rubio spokesman told el Nuevo Herald that the senator and his staff “have been working behind the scenes” on Cuba policy.
The Cuban government has taken notice of Rubio's rising voice in U.S. policy toward Latin America, and the state-run Granma newspaper recently criticized his efforts to have the Organization of American States condemn Venezuela's human rights record.
But the Granma article carefully avoided insulting Trump. And the Raúl Castro government, in a rare show of restraint, has said little about the Trump administration as it waits for the ongoing review of overall U.S. policies toward the island.
Spokespersons for the White House and the State Department have said that the National Security Council (NSC) has the lead in the multi-agency review. Several knowledgeable sources have said that Jill St. John, a low-level NSC staffer, is coordinating the work. The White House did not immediately reply to el Nuevo Herald questions about St. John.
The review requires an initial examination of current policy and regulations. But whoever is gathering that information “has no directions on what to do about that,” said one source who favors improved relations with Havana.
Several key jobs in the State Department and other agencies also remain unfilled by officials “who usually would be the ones you could approach to talk about Cuba,” said one pro-embargo source frustrated by the so-called “vacuum.”
But “treating Cuba as a dictatorship” does not necessarily entail reversing all of President Barack Obama's measure to improve bilateral relations. Rubio said he favored tougher policies toward Cuba, a strategy favored by some dissidents on the island. But he did not reply directly to a question on whether he favors a total rollback of the new regulations, as proposed in a memorandum making the rounds on Capitol Hill and the White House that is believed to have been crafted by staff members for Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.
The memo proposes imposing new sanctions within 90 days unless Cuba meets a string of requirements contained in the Helms-Burton law and takes action toward the return of U.S. fugitives and compensation for confiscated U.S. properties.
Several proposals circulating
However, the memo is just one of many proposing different policies, according to several sources.
A White House official said in a statement of the Diaz-Balart memo: “This appears to be an unofficial DRAFT memo which is not consistent with current formatting and may be a Transition document.
“Some of the language is consistent with what the President said during the campaign, which is guiding the review of U.S. policy toward Cuba,” the official said. “The review is not complete and therefore there is no further comment at this time.”
Trump promised during the presidential campaign to “reverse” all the pro-engagement measures approved by Obama unless the Cuban government bows to his demands. These days, the phrase making the rounds within political circles in Washington and Miami is “treat Cuba like a dictatorship.”
“Cuba must be treated for what it is and not, as the Obama administration did, what it wished Cuba were. Cuba remains a Communist, totalitarian police state that allies itself with American adversaries and enemies, including state sponsors of terror and terrorist organizations,” said attorney Jason Poblete of the Washington-based PobleteTamargo LLP. His wife Yleem Poblete was appointed to the Trump transition team.
Other proposals floating around Washington would reverse only parts of the Obama changes, because doing more would disrupt the market and risk lawsuits from U.S. companies that have already signed deals with Cuba. The recommendations in the presumed Diaz-Balart memo would cost U.S. tourism and service companies about $2 billion during the remaining years of the Trump administration, said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
Turning back the clock even further, to the tight restrictions on travel and remittances imposed by former President George W. Bush — a possibility that had frightened many people — seems even less likely now.
Several sources who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly on the issue said that among the proposals submitted to the Trump administration is one that would eliminate the self-guided trips to Cuba under the so-called “people to people” travel category, described as “tourism on steroids” or a thinly-veiled way to sidestep the U.S. ban on Cuba tourism.
Another would impose targeted sanctions on Cuban military or Interior Ministry officials. And a third would deny further licenses to U.S. companies that do business with enterprises run by the Cuban military, which controls at least an estimated 60 percent of the island's economy.
“They are 100 percent looking into this,” said one source close to the business sector with ties to Cuba. One pro-engagement source said that the proposal to deny licenses — perhaps the most detrimental for Cuba — would be difficult to implement.
“How's OFAC going to determine which companies are connected to the Cuban military?,” said the source.
He also cautioned that such harsh measures could strengthen the most conservative sectors within Cuba, at a time when the Venezuelan crisis is growing worse and Castro's deadline for retiring from power in 2018 is approaching.
Rubio's statements, nevertheless, hint that Trump policies may target the Cuban military. House Speaker Paul Ryan last year also proposed banning U.S. companies from doing business with Cuba military enterprises.
At the same time, groups that support improving relations with Cuba have not stopped their lobbying efforts, and continue “strategizing about how to influence the Trump administration, although the window of opportunity is closing,” said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution who specializes in U.S.-Cuba relations.
Piccone said that maintaining the current policy toward Cuba would be in the best interest of the United States, not just because of the economic benefits but also because of national security concerns. He said Trump administration officials such as Jason Greenblatt at the NSC, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly are “open to this argument.”
U.S. companies doing business with Cuba also have been sending messages to the Trump administration in support of a pro-business agenda.
“With the new administration’s desire to grow our economy, we are hopeful that both governments will continue the momentum to work to open the door for commerce to flourish between our two countries,” said Vanessa Picariello, Norwegian Cruise senior director of public relations.
“Business and civic leaders from the American Farm Bureau, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Republican members of Congress also have been encouraging President Trump to shake up our failed embargo policy with Cuba,” said James Williams, director of Engage Cuba, a coalition of businesses and organizations lobbying to eliminate economic sanctions to Cuba. “President Trump can create billions of dollars in trade and tens of thousands of American jobs by expanding trade with Cuba.”
Letters in support of the current pro-engagement policy have been sent to the Trump administration by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Catholic Church leaders, the American Farm Bureau, Cuban-American organizations like the Cuba Study Group and members of Congress like Minnesota Republican Rep. Tom Emmer, who has submitted a bill to lift the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.
Piccone said that on balance the pro-engagement camp feels “positive, although realistic that certain promises were made to senators like Rubio.
“It is up for grabs, what is happening at the end.”
Miami Herald reporter Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres