With Cuban exile leaders mum, Clinton launches Miami radio attack ad over Trump's embargo-breaking
By MARC CAPUTO 10/03/16 06:00 AM EDT
MIAMI — In a sign of the “uncomfortable” spot Donald Trump has put them in, the Miami Republican leaders who support a hard line on Cuba don’t want to talk about a news story detailing how one of the GOP presidential nominee’s companies helped violate the U.S. embargo of the communist island.
So Hillary Clinton is making sure voters hear all about it in South Florida — home to a sizable population of pro-embargo Republican Cuban-Americans — in a 30-second radio ad called “Two Trumps.”
“One Donald comes to Miami to sip cafecito Cubano and talk about the human rights abuses of Castro’s communist regime. The other Donald thinks because of his money and his business that he’s above the law,” the ad says in English and Spanish.
“An investigative report by Newsweek revealed that one of Donald Trump’s businesses violated the Cuba embargo in 1998. It said that the business paid a consultant $68,000 to travel to Cuba and explore business opportunities for Trump’s company.”
Trump and his campaign haven’t denied specifics of the story, which first ran Thursday. But the candidate later said that “I never did business in Cuba … I never did anything in Cuba. I never did a deal in Cuba.”
While it might be true that Trump hasn’t “done a deal” in Cuba, Trump’s business paid Seven Arrows Investment & Development Corp. $68,551 for “Expenses incurred prior to an including a trip to Cuba on Behalf of Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, Inc.,” according to an invoice from the firm.
Under U.S. law, it would have been illegal for Seven Arrows to spend money on the island, so as not to enrich the Castro regime. The consulting firm could have applied for a license to travel to Cuba with the U.S. government. But the company instead traveled without a license and, according to a document unearthed by Newsweek, indicated to the Trump organization that it would cover its tracks by claiming the Cuba visit was hosted by a Catholic charity that would have picked up all its expenses.
Until recently, news like this would have riled the Cuban-American community. Spending money in Cuba is like putting cash in Castro’s pocket, they say. Trump said it too — about nine months after his company paid the consultant’s bill as he was examining a bid for president in 2000.
But support for the embargo is dying a slow death, according to polls. Cuban-American Republican voters are the last holdouts in favor of the policy.
And for Republican leaders, criticizing Trump runs the risk of depressing support for the nominee in Miami-Dade County, where 72 percent of the 366,000 Republicans are Hispanic and nearly all are Cuban-American. Without these voters’ strong backing, Republican candidates struggle to win Florida in close races. And if Trump loses Florida, he’ll lose his shot at the White House.
A sustained ad campaign to point out this Cuba controversy could help keep Trump from consolidating more Cuban-American support, which has been weak already, said Dario Moreno, a Republican pollster and political science professor from Florida International University who has co-taught a class with Sen. Marco Rubio.
He said Trump has put Rubio and others exile leaders “in an uncomfortable position,"
“The reaction [from the exile community] has been muted,” Moreno said. “First off: fever for the embargo is falling considerably. And second, a lot of these voters have nowhere else to go.”
Clinton, after all, has called for repealing the embargo. Trump recently clarified his position in Miami to say he supports the embargo still.
Rubio said he’ll “reserve judgment” about the report, but said these “serious accusations” should be answered by Trump, who hasn’t done that. Meanwhile, Rubio accused Clinton of hypocrisy on the issue.
“She’s now so interested in enforcing the Cuban embargo, and in fact, she wants to lift it,” Rubio said Friday to reporters. “She wants to see more trade in Cuba. Hillary Clinton supports more travel to Cuba, more trade to Cuba, she wants to get rid of the embargo in Cuba. So, I think it’s kind of hypocritical to be out there screaming about this when she supports lifting the embargo.”
To Rubio’s point, Clinton’s ad avoids any mention of the fact that she wants the embargo lifted, and the ad draws a line between spending money in Cuba and backing the Castros. The ad seeks to make Trump a hypocrite.
“While our parents and grandparents were fighting the Castro regime — both on and off the island — Donald Trump was looking to line his pockets, and even worse, those of the Castro brothers,” the ad says. “This is a serious insult to our community.”
One of the anti-embargo Republican Cuban-Americans backing Clinton against Trump, Miami billionaire Mike Fernandez, said Rubio “doesn’t have any backbone” because he won’t criticize Trump the way he would, say, bash a Democrat for violating the embargo.
“Marco is not being consistent. He’s being politically expedient. Either the embargo matters or it doesn’t,” Fernandez said. “I think that all these guys know today that the embargo’s days are outnumbered. But they’re still trying to sit on the fence, saying Trump needs to clarify what he said. You know what he said. Look at what he did. That tells you what he meant.”
For Bernadette Pardo, host of the local Spanish-language show Radio Mambí called “Pedaleando con Bernie,” said the embargo no longer seemed to matter to so many in Miami in light of Newsweek’s Trump story.
“A lot of people who call my show, who would have gone ballistic a few years ago at such news, are totally untroubled and simply say he's a businessman,” she said. “A couple have pointed out his hypocrisy at saying one thing to Cubans here and doing the exact opposite according to Newsweek. Not many years ago around that time [in 1998], I covered cases of people who went to jail for violating the embargo.”
The embargo has never been completely strict and draconian. Travelers and business interests have skirted the law and slipped in and out for years, said Mauricio Claver-Carone, a pro-embargo activist and influential blogger.
In one post on the Capitol Hill Cubans blog, Claver-Carone said Clinton should tell the White House to crack down on other violators of the sanctions. After Newsweek published its first story, Claver-Carone posted a blog item that questioned whether Trump should be praised for not investing in Cuba after checking it out.
Trump emissaries have expressed interest in Cuba on at least three occasions.
Caught in all the Republican crossfire is U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Miami Republican who supports the embargo and opposes Trump. He wouldn’t say much, but expressed concern that Trump was partly getting a pass on the embargo issue.
“Exile leaders should hold all candidates to the same standard on Cuba policy, past and present,” Curbelo said, adding that Clinton “has clear support for Obama’s policy of unilateral concessions to the Castro government. But his [Trump’s] policy is unknown … it’s unclear.”
Curbelo’s fellow GOP House member from Miami who’s also not backing Trump, .S. Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen, avoided any mention of the controversy. Her active Twitter feed spoke about everything else since the story broke: the funeral of former Israeli President Shimon Peres, the University of Miami’s football team, Iran policy, and Colombia’s rejected peace deal Sunday with the rebel group known as FARC.
U.S. Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, also a Republican, said he wants to support Trump and that he draws some comfort from the fact that Trump ultimately didn’t invest in Cuba. He said Trump is still a better choice than Clinton when it comes to Cuba policy.
While Díaz-Balart and others take issue with polls showing declining support for the embargo, it’s clear that advocating a hardline on Cuba policy is markedly less of an issue for Trump compared to his predecessors.
In 2012, for instance, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign went into damage control after The Miami Herald reported his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, voted three times against the embargo. Days after Romney made the announcement of his running mate, he stood in Miami with Ros-Lehtinen, Díaz-Balart and his brother, former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart — who helped persuade then President Bill Clinton to codify the embargo in 1996 in federal law — to underscore the ticket’s pro-embargo bonafides. Ryan later came to Miami and pledged to support the embargo.
Now, Trump has given the Clinton campaign a way to try to undermine his outreach to the exile community. A senior Clinton adviser said the ad could target “a universe of … Spanish-speaking Cubans or older Cubans who — whether they vote for Hillary or not, or whether they just leave it blank or write someone in or vote third-party — that's bad for him. Because that's a vote away from him. It's just another issue with one group of voters who are, literally single-issue voters."
For Henry Gomez, an embargo supporter and writer and former editor of Babalú Blog, is among those Cuban-American conservatives who just can’t back Trump because it means “defending the indefensible.” Gomez said he’s voting for Libertarian Gary Johnson, who opposes the embargo as well.
Gomez said the exile community would have been more vocal about the Trump controversy during the GOP presidential primaries, when Rubio was still running for the White House. Trump beat Rubio in every county, except Miami-Dade.
The relative lack of vocal criticism about Trump from the exile community is partly a sign of how “the old guard is dying or feels defeated,” Gomez said. “It's politics now. Not policy.”