It could have been a celebration of one of President Barack Obama’s most significant foreign-policy legacies. Instead, on Thursday, almost two years to the day when Obama single-handedly overturned U.S. policy toward Cuba, the White House assembled Cuban Americans, Cuban government officials and business partners in Washington to offer the best reassurances they could come up with that their efforts had not been in vain.
President Obama himself has spoken to President-elect Donald Trump about the importance of holding the course on Cuba. And once out of office, Obama intends to remain involved in Cuba matters as a private citizen, several meeting attendees told the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.
“He absolutely will,” said Ric Herrero, one of more than 20 Cuban Americans who met with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes.
Obama did not attend the private meetings, held across the street from the White House at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on a bitterly cold Washington day, though he sent each person a letter encouraging them “to carry forward the work of strengthening our partnership in the years ahead.” Over an informal lunch, attendees noshed on medianoche sandwiches, lechón and empanadas.
The White House did not specifically respond to a request for comment on the president’s Cuba plans or conversation with Trump. It’s unclear when the two men discussed Cuba, though they recently spoke by phone the day after Cuba announced Fidel Castro’s death.
In an MSNBC interview Thursday, Rhodes said Cuba has been “one of the subjects of discussion” between Obama and Trump.
“President Obama made clear there are real opportunities for American business down there,” Rhodes said.
Thursday’s meetings took place as proponents of closer U.S.-Cuba ties face continued uncertainty over what approach Trump will take toward the island’s communist regime. While Obama’s backers gathered in Washington, Miami’s hard-line Cuban-American members of Congress told reporters Obama’s Cuba policy has been “disastrous.”
“The United States has received no benefit from these concessions, nor have the Cuban people because the Castro regime has given up nothing — nada,” said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. “Hopefully with President-elect Trump and a new administration, we may be in a position to reverse some of the damage inflicted on the cause of freedom and democracy in Cuba.”
A crucial difference is over how much support to give Cuban dissidents. Ros-Lehtinen and her colleagues consider them the only legitimate political opposition; the people who met at the White House argue small business owners known as cuentapropistas pose a bigger, more powerful threat to the Cuban regime.
The White House has pushed for U.S. companies to complete agreements with the Cuban government ahead of Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration, hoping that having contracts in place will make Obama’s policy more difficult to undo. Cuba recently signed deals with cruise operators and Google, though the U.S. is pressuring Cuba to do more.
Thursday morning, dozens of people assembled to hear from Rhodes, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the acting American ambassador in Havana; José Ramón Cabañas, the Cuban ambassador in Washington, and three high-level officials from the commerce, state and treasury departments. Cabañas’ speech is believed to be the first by a Cuban ambassador at a White House event since the two countries renewed diplomatic ties. He reiterated the Cuban government’s opposition to the U.S. trade embargo — the “blockade,” he called it — and to the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay, several people in the audience said.
The Cuban delegation included representatives from the country’s top government banks, many of them already in Washington for talks held Tuesday on commercial and financial regulations, according to Cuba’s foreign ministry. Also attending: U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa, both Democrats.
A chief concern among attendees was that Trump’s “volatile” personality could ignite a war of words with the Cubans, who have so far kept silent about the president-elect’s Cuba statements. On the other hand, attendees noted, Trump doesn’t have a clear political ideology, and could be more interested in showing up Obama on Cuba by negotiating more concessions.
“We would like nothing more than the new administration to succeed beyond what we did,” Rhodes told reporters Tuesday.
On Thursday, Rhodes and DeLaurentis touted the administration’s accomplishments and, at different times, got emotional — Rhodes remembering support from Cuban-American friends in the wake of stinging criticism over his work, and DeLaurentis describing his work in Cuba, where he began and might end his diplomatic career, as the most rewarding of his life.
“It was partly a celebration of what has been achieved, and a mourning” for the intense political fight that awaits, said one of the participants, Ted Henken, a Baruch College sociology professor and Cuba expert who attended the event.
After lunch, only DeLaurentis, Rhodes and Rhodes’ staff met with the smaller group of Cuban Americans.
Among the guests were Miami entrepreneur Hugo Cancio, who publishes an arts magazine in Cuba; Felice Gorordo, founder of the Roots of Hope nonprofit; former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez; John McIntire, head of the Cuba Emprende Foundation; Miami attorney Ralph Patino; Giancarlo Sopo, founder of the CubaOne foundation, and Miami Foundation president and chief executive Javier Alberto Soto. After the meeting, some attended a reception organized by the U.S.-Cuba Business Council at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
One of their complaints: that Obama’s statement following Castro’s death was much too anodyne. At the time, some of them privately contacted the administration to express their dismay that Obama had not explicitly acknowledged Cuban exiles’ pain. The same point was made Thursday, one attendee said, and Rhodes responded that his team had heard their concern.
Herrero, who used to head the pro-engagement Cuba Now group, described the gathering as “bittersweet.”
“There was just a lot of gratitude toward the administration for their commitment to this cause and to everything they’ve done,” said Herrero, now president of Mano Americas, a social entrepreneurship nonprofit. “But at the same time, there was also the lingering question: What next? Where do we go from here? Because there is no certainty.”
Trump took the first step toward setting his own foreign policy by selecting Rex Tillerson, chairman and chief executive of Exxon Mobil, as his secretary of state. Unlike other potential picks, Tillerson’s Cuba position remains unknown. Exxon’s Cuban assets, worth tens of millions of dollars, were seized after Castro’s revolution.
Hardliners appreciate that Tillerson refused to join the Russian-owned Rosneft in drilling for Cuban oil. “The current sanctioned law of [the] United States will not allow us to participate in any activity in Cuba,” he said at Exxon Mobil’s 2014 annual shareholder meeting.
The other side, however, points to something else Tillerson said in the same meeting — that his company usually opposes sanctions. “We do not support sanctions, generally, because we don’t find them to be effective unless they are very well implemented comprehensively, and that’s a very hard thing to do.”
Both camps agree the biggest indication of what direction Trump will take lies in the people Tillerson appoints to run day-to-day Cuba operations at the State Department. The same goes for two other key departments dealing with Cuba, treasury and commerce, and for the National Security Council.
To help the Trump transition, at least one female White House staffer who worked with Rhodes on Cuba policy will remain in her position through March, the attendees were told. They declined to name her to reporters Friday.
Hardliners are certain Trump will reverse Obama’s approach entirely. Obama supporters detect a willingness from Trump to keep negotiating with Raúl Castro’s government. Regulatory changes, following a top-to-bottom policy review, could take time to reverse — so long, perhaps, that by then Castro might near his own retirement, scheduled for February 2018.
“We’re living through a lot of uncertainty, but there’s a pretty strong consensus that Trump is going to realize that turning back the clock is going to be very difficult,” said Carlos Saladrigas, president of the Cuba Study Group and one of Thursday’s White House guests. “Returning to a failed policy doesn’t make any sense.”
Reversing Cuba policy seen as a punch in the gut to Latin America
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Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, left, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, right, and Bolivia's President Evo Morales acknowledge supporters during a welcome ceremony for presidents attending an extraordinary meeting in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Thursday , July 4, 2013. Juan KaritaAP
One of the most significant effects of the U.S. détente with Cuba had less to do with relations between the two countries than with helping stop the “pink tide” that was pulsing through Latin America.
That’s the message the White House is delivering to the Trump transition team as it warns against rolling back a Cuba policy that has made it easier to work with Latin American nations and undercut the spread of the leftist movement known, for its founder Hugo Chavez, as “chavismo.”
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez speaks while holding a copy of the Venezuelan National Constitution during his weekly radio and television show known as "Hello President" in Caracas, Sunday, Oct. 7, 2007. AP
“If you just look at the trajectory of that anti-American strain in politics in the region, it’s still there but it has dissipated significantly because of the approach that this president has taken,” senior White House official Ben Rhodes said in a conversation with reporters about Obama administration Cuba policy.
The White House is working hard to protect what it considers its most ambitious foreign policy initiative – ending more than 50 years of hostility with Cuba.
On Saturday, the White House recognized the second anniversary of restored ties with the island nation by welcoming officials from the Cuban embassy, members of the Cuban-American community and business leaders to a conference to discuss how to promote engagement between the two governments into the next administration.
Since President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced plans to restore ties on Dec. 17, 2014, the countries’ embassies have been reopened and restrictions have been lifted on trade and travel. In March, Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Havana in 88 years, and Cubans lined downtown streets just to get a look at his motorcade.
But all those efforts may be for naught if Trump carries out a campaign promise to the South Florida exile community to reverse Obama’s outreach to Cuba unless the communist government frees political prisoners and restores religious and political freedoms.
“All of the concessions Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were done through executive order, which means the next president can reverse them, and that I will do so unless the Castro regime meets our demands,” Trump said at a September campaign event in Miami. “Not my demands – our demands.”
Jorge Guajardo, Mexico’s former ambassador to China, said such a move would revive the narrative promoted by leftist governments that the United States is the “evil empire” bent on punishing innocent Latin American governments that don’t do its bidding.
“It makes it very difficult for us Latin American leaders to align with the U.S.,” Guajardo said. “By establishing relations with Cuba, you are disarming this intelligentsia who always use the U.S. as the bad guy.”
The so-called pink tide swept through Latin America in the 2000s. The late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez spearheaded the movement of radical change across Latin America with a vision of “21st-century socialism.” It largely focused on fighting American imperialism.
During a U.N. speech in 2006, Chavez stood before the General Assembly the day after then-President George W. Bush had addressed the group and famously said he could still smell the sulfur.
“The devil came here yesterday, right here,” Chavez said.
More leftist leaders followed, such Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.
When Obama took office in 2009, he sought to set a new tone with the region, said Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser and one of the architects of Obama’s diplomatic thaw with Cuba. He sought partnerships. Obama felt that the Bush administration had not paid enough attention to the region.
The United States policy against Cuba remained a source of tension between the U.S. and every country in the hemisphere. Removing it opened up opportunities to the United States, including the Colombia peace deal and a new relationship with Argentina, Rhodes said.
Several leading conservative Latin American experts who have the Trump administration’s ear disagree. Former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela Otto Reich questioned why the United States would develop its policy based on the feelings of others.
“Let’s make an analogy: Would we design our policy toward Israel based on what the countries in that region think of our policy toward Israel ... Syria or Iran, etc. or etc.?” said Reich, who was assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere during George W. Bush’s first term.
He doesn’t think countries would risk opposing the United States to align with the last dictatorship in the hemisphere. He noted that new leaders in Argentina, Brazil and Peru are more aligned with the interests of the United States than their predecessors.
The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which tracks human rights and political repression in Cuba, reported more than 8,600 politically motivated detentions in 2015 – a 315 percent increase from five years ago. Through October of this year, there had been more 9,124 arrests. The commission predicts there will be more than 10,000 detentions by the end of the year.
Roger Noriega, also a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs at the State Department, has heard from some Latin American ambassadors that some countries in the region would view a U.S. reversal on Cuba negatively. But he criticized them for failing to speak out about abuse and repression.
“I don’t think any Latin American government or Caribbean government has lifted a finger or raised a whimper about the repression in Cuba in the last two years,” Noriega said.
Noriega advised the Trump administration to make it clear to Latin American leaders that, in exchange for keeping some of Obama’s policies in place, the U.S. will expect them to take a stronger stand on human rights in Cuba.
Gregory Weeks, the editor of the academic journal The Latin Americanist, understands that some Obama critics see engagement as a tacit acceptance of the Castro government’s poor rights record. But he said reversing Obama policy wouldn’t change human rights conditions on the island.
“We’ve tried for over 50 years a certain policy to force the government out and it didn’t work,” said Weeks, the chairman of the department of political science and public administration at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “And the policy is not improving human rights in Cuba. And the policy is not changing the government in Cuba. So we’re not really promoting human rights by having the embargo and isolating Cuba.”
Guajardo said the region would likely turn hostile should the Trump administration roll back Obama’s Cuba policy.
“You can ignore Latin America when everything is OK and that’s fine,” Guajardo said. “But you can’t make us all adversaries and then ignore, and then expect everything to be fine. The saying is ‘divide and conquer,’ not ‘get everyone against you and then conquer.’”
The Obama administration has “transformed the nature of U.S. engagement” in Latin America largely because of the Cuban rapprochement and its willingness to “work with everybody,” Rhodes said. He called it the most under-appreciated part of Obama’s legacy on foreign policy.
“That doesn’t mean we shy away from criticizing Venezuela or even Cuba on certain issues,” Rhodes said. “But we have not defined our relationship on the terms that opponents of the United States wanted to define the relationship in Latin America, which is we’re telling other countries what to do and we’re trying to change governments in the hemisphere.”