WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is considering reversing major pieces of the Obama administration's opening with Cuba and reinstating limits on travel and commerce, citing human rights abuses by the Castro government as justification for a more punitive approach.
Trump wants to announce the changes in Miami as early as June and deliver on a campaign promise that remains a cherished demand for the politically conservative Cuban-American exile community, the New York Times reports, citing aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity. But he has not made a final decision on the steps he will take because of internal disagreements within his administration over how far to go in unwinding one of President Barack Obama's most significant foreign policy achievements.
Clamping down on engagement with Cuba would be a high-profile way for Trump to showcase a stark break with his predecessor and to fulfill a pledge, delivered during a speech in Miami in September, to a crucial constituency that disproportionately supported him. It would also enable the president to reward the loyalty of Cuban-American lawmakers who have been agitating for a harder line on Cuba, including Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, both Florida Republicans.
But as the White House has sought to formulate a series of steps for Trump to announce, a split has emerged over rolling back a policy that many senior officials privately agree has been an improvement on the Cold War dynamic that shaped relations with Cuba in the past. In addition to the revival of diplomatic relations for the first time in a half-century and liberalized rules for trade, travel and commerce, the new approach has paved the way for cooperation in intelligence-sharing, drug interdiction, scientific research and a host of other areas.
"A lot of the bureaucracy has been resisting a complete rollback" of Obama's policy, said Christopher Sabatini, a Latin America specialist and executive director of Global Americans, a research organization. "Trump is the 'Art of the Deal' guy, and there's no deal to be had here if they reverse the entire policy."
The dilemma is a familiar one for the president, who built his campaign and political persona around bold, contrarian policy pronouncements — like building a wall on the southern border, instituting a Muslim ban and canceling the Paris climate accord — only to see his hopes for quick and simple action scuttled by thorny questions of law and policy, and by resistance from the business community.
"I am confident the president will keep his commitment on Cuba policy by making changes that are targeted and strategic and which advance the Cuban people's aspirations for economic and political liberty," said Rubio, who has met with and talked to Trump and his top aides several times on the matter.
As the White House labored in March to corral Republican votes for an unpopular health care overhaul measure, Diaz-Balart asked for assurances from Trump that he would hold to the hard line on Cuba he laid out in his campaign. Diaz-Balart supported the measure and has played an influential role in shaping the new Cuba policy.
"It is my duty to advocate for the issues that are important to my constituents, and I will not apologize for using every available avenue to effectively resolve them," he said in a statement.
Among the measures the Trump administration is considering are proposals pressed by Rubio and Diaz-Balart to block transactions between American companies and firms that have ties to the Cuban military. Such a restriction could have far-reaching consequences for existing deals, such as the one struck by Starwood Hotels and Resorts last year to manage hotels in Cuba — one of which is owned by the military conglomerate Gaviota — and effectively freeze future ones, since the military in Cuba has a hand in virtually every element of the economy.
"This is a return to the old playbook of creating ambiguity and uncertainty so that nobody knows what is permissible and what isn't, and it would add another level of legal exposure to doing business in Cuba," said Robert L. Muse, a Washington lawyer who specializes in U.S. law regarding Cuba. "It would add one more obstacle to the obstacle course, which is already pretty complex."
Trump, according to people close to the discussions, is also considering tightening restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba that were eased last year on the eve of Obama's historic trip to Havana. The new policy allows Americans who are making educational or cultural trips to Cuba to initiate their own travel there without special permission from the U.S. government and without a licensed tour company.
Reversing it, or intensifying enforcement to require travelers to show evidence that their trips are legal, would probably slow the recent influx of American tourism to Cuba to a trickle, leaving airlines that have started direct flights there with fewer customers to serve.
And the president is weighing an increase in funding for the U.S. Agency for International Development for programs that promote democracy in Cuba, initiatives that the Castro government has long condemned as covert efforts to overthrow it.
The changes are far more limited than those sought by Cuba hard-liners — who have pressed Trump to reimpose all the sanctions lifted by the Obama administration and cut off diplomatic relations unless Cuba, a military dictatorship, quickly schedules democratic elections, institutes an independent judiciary and shows progress on settling U.S. financial claims and returning American fugitives to the United States.
Forged in secret by Obama's top aides along with senior officials in the government of President Raúl Castro of Cuba during more than a year of clandestine talks, the official thaw between the United States and Cuba began with a surprise announcement in December 2014 and was then followed by a series of diplomatic and regulatory changes designed to be difficult to unravel.
At a high-level meeting on the policy changes led by the National Security Council last month, officials from a wide array of agencies said they supported continuing the aspects of the policy that pertained to their departments, people familiar with the discussion said, as Trump's legislative affairs operation, which tracks the president's private commitments to lawmakers, made the case for changes.
Without a consensus, an announcement that had initially been anticipated on May 20, Cuban Independence Day, never materialized. A White House official said Wednesday that Trump has yet to receive any recommendations for how to move forward, and while he would like to announce his new policy this month, there is no guarantee that he will do so, and no milestone date driving the process.
In seeking to justify his changes on human rights grounds, Trump would be taking an approach far different from the one he has applied to other parts of the world, where he and his advisers have viewed human rights considerations as an impediment to trade and partnerships that create jobs in the United States.
"Given their complete lack of concern for human rights around the world, it would be a tragic irony if the Trump administration uses that to justify policies that harm the Cuban people and restrict the freedom of Americans to travel and do business where they please," said Benjamin Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser to Obama who negotiated the 2014 announcement. "It's clear that the Cuban and American people want to move forward, and nothing can change that reality."