June 27, 2017

The Trump whisperer: Marco Rubio has the president’s ear on Latin America

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@alextdaugherty 

Donald Trump has a distaste for the State Department and its legions of diplomats tasked with crafting the nation’s foreign policy.

So when it comes to Latin America, the CEO-turned-president is listening to a man he derided on the campaign trail a year ago: Marco Rubio.

It was Rubio who set up a White House meeting with Lilian Tintori, a human-rights activist married to jailed Venezuelan dissident Leopoldo Lopez. After the meeting, Trump tweeted his support for Lopez, a public rebuke of embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

It was Rubio who helped draft a changed Cuba policy in recent weeks, culminating in Trump’s first presidential visit to Miami to fulfill a campaign promise to the conservative Cubans who helped him win the White House.

And Rubio is well-positioned to take advantage of a vacuum of leadership in the State Department and communicate directly with a president who dislikes diplomacy-as-usual on Latin American foreign policy, according to interviews with former Rubio foreign policy staffers and State Department officials.

“They’ve asked for my input on basically every issue in Latin America and the Western Hemisphere and … we’ve been engaged with them and they’ve been very open,” Rubio said. “In some ways, the fact that they didn’t come in with preconceived ideas of what to do has created the space for that debate to occur.”

There’s plenty of space.

Six months into his administration, Donald Trump has yet to appoint dozens of high-level State Department employees, including the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, the top diplomat in charge of Latin America.

And the president bucked the advice of some of his own senior officials and a slew of congressional Republicans in favor of Rubio to finish the Cuba deal.

Rubio “found a way to say, ‘You don’t want to listen to the experts, listen to me,’ ” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a group that lobbies for closer Cuba ties and is opposed to Trump’s policy changes. “He found a really successful way to tell Trump, don’t listen to your own bureaucracy.”

Not that Trump needs an excuse to eschew the federal bureaucracy, which will be massively downsized if the White House gets its way.

Trump wants to cut the State Department’s budget by 30 percent, repeatedly rails against foreign aid and openly disagreed with his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, during a dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

“It is a genuine problem not to have people that are diplomats, trained people that really are very loyal and dedicated American citizens who want to represent their country,” said former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, a Democrat who served under Bill Clinton. “I’ve just been traveling abroad, and our embassies don’t have enough people.”

Read more here. 

June 20, 2017

Nelson tries to avoid getting pinned down on Trump Cuba shift

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via @learyreports

WASHINGTON - Sen. Bill Nelson was quiet as President Donald Trump unveiled his new policy on Cuba. So we were curious about his views, especially as future rival Rick Scott embraced the change.

What we got Monday evening was a statement that seemed to have it both ways.

"While I support the embargo and agree that American dollars shouldn't go to the Cuban government or military, I also support the people of Cuba,” the Democrat said. “I support families helping families. And I believe allowing more Americans to interact with the people of Cuba is in their best interest, while we continue to pressure the Castro regime for human rights and freedoms."

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

Photo credit: Tampa Bay Times file

June 17, 2017

June 16, 2017

Trump defies congressional Republicans who want closer relations with Cuba

Trump Cuba

@alextdaugherty 

Congressional Republicans from outside South Florida opposed President Donald Trump’s revamped Cuba policy announcement on Friday, as lawmakers from states with agricultural and trade interests on the island fretted about the economic implications of a ban on U.S. business with the Cuban military apparatus.

“Any policy change that diminishes the ability of Americans to travel freely to Cuba is not in the best interests of the United States or the Cuban people,” said Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a proponent of ending the Cuban embargo.

Flake introduced legislation earlier this year that would eliminate travel restrictions to Cuba for American citizens, and he garnered 54 other co-sponsors, including Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, for his bill. Flake implored Senate leadership to put his legislation on the floor for a vote.

“The bill has 55 total cosponsors and I am convinced it would pass the Senate with upwards of 70 votes,” Flake said in a statement.

But President Trump ignored the wishes of the majority of the Senate to fulfill a campaign pledge for conservative Cubans in South Florida: As part of the policy change, travel to Cuba for American citizens will face increased scrutiny.

“We will enforce the ban on tourism, we will enforce the embargo and we will take concrete steps to insure investments flow directly to the people,” Trump said in Miami on Friday.

As the president doled out heaps of praise for Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the two South Florida Republicans who played an integral role in shaping the revamped Cuba policy, other congressional Republicans began to voice their displeasure.

“I have a bill that would allow Americans to travel freely to Cuba, one of my compatriots has a bill that would allow agricultural exports,” said Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., a proponent of ending the trade embargo. “These are all Republican measures these are all Republican bills. We tried the same approach for 50 years and it didn’t work.”

Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, who represents a state with a large agricultural sector, said the newly announced changes will hurt U.S. businesses seeking to expand abroad.

“Cuba is a natural market for our nation’s farmers and ranchers, and when we don’t sell to Cuba, another country does,” Moran said.

Read more here. 

June 15, 2017

Ros-Lehtinen backs Trump Cuba policy but won't attend Miami announcement

@PatriciaMazzei

Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen backs President Donald Trump new Cuba policy, but she won't be around for Trump's big announcement Friday.

Ros-Lehtinen, who is retiring next year, has been critical of Trump. But the White House invited her to attend Trump's policy event in Miami's Manuel Artime Theater. Ros-Lehtinen, however, said she has family plans that will keep her in Washington.

"I fully support President Trump's announcement on his new Cuba policy and I commend my legislative brothers, Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, for playing an instrumental role in crafting this initiative which curtails cooperation with the Castro regime's military monopoly GAESA," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement to the Miami Herald. "However, I will not be able to travel on Air Force One nor be at the event in Miami due to family commitments in Washington, DC."

Rubio and Diaz-Balart, and Rep. Carlos Curbelo, will join Trump, along with Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Vice President Mike Pence, who was in town Thursday for a conference at Florida International University, might also attend. 

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez is out of town, but the county will have the representation of Chairman Esteban "Steve" Bovo and Commissioners Bruno Barreiro, Jose "Pepe" Diaz, Joe Martinez and Javier Souto

 
 

Inside Rubio and Diaz-Balart's Oval Office push to crack down on Cuba

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@PatriciaMazzei

Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart sat in the Oval Office last month, surrounded by two Cabinet secretaries, the national security adviser and an array of top White House staff, and asked President Donald Trump to put his power behind their plans for Cuba.

The Miami Republican lawmakers had been pressing Trump for months to unwind former President Barack Obama’s policies, bringing up Cuba at every opportunity: Diaz-Balart when he and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen met in private with their former House colleague, Vice President Mike Pence, in February; Rubio when he and his wife joined the president and first lady for an intimate dinner two days later, and again when the senator flew aboard Air Force One to Florida in March.

The administration had been waiting for deputies across Cabinet agencies to review existing Cuba regulations. By the May 3 Oval Office meeting, their recommendation was in: Keep Obama’s push to normalize U.S. relations with the regime of Cuban leader Raúl Castro.

That’s not what Trump wanted. As a candidate, he’d promised change to South Florida’s Cuban-American hardliners, including Bay of Pigs veterans who endorsed him, a gesture that stuck with Trump and that he repeatedly mentioned as president.

“The president said, ‘Look, I want to do this,’” Rubio said.

More here.

Photo credit: Rainier Ehrhardt, Associated Press

Here's Trump's new Cuba policy, taking a harder line than Obama

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@PatriciaMazzei @ngameztorres

In an overhaul of one of his predecessor’s signature legacies, President Donald Trump will redraw U.S. policy toward Cuba on Friday, tightening travel restrictions for Americans that had been loosened under President Barack Obama and banning U.S. business transactions with Cuba’s vast military conglomerate.

Trump’s changes, shared Thursday with the Miami Herald, are intended to sharply curtail cash flow to the Cuban government and pressure its communist leaders to let the island’s fledgling private sector grow. Diplomatic relations reestablished by Obama, including reopened embassies in Washington and Havana, will remain. Travel and money sent by Cuban Americans will be unaffected.

Trump is expected to announce the presidential policy directive Friday, surrounded by Cuban-American supporters at Miami’s Manuel Artime Theater, a venue named after one of the late leaders of the Brigade 2506 Bay of Pigs veterans whose group offered Trump their endorsement last October after he promised exiles a “better deal.” 

In his remarks, Trump plans to cite human-rights violations in Cuba as justification for the new U.S. approach. Dissidents say government repression has increased.

While not a full reversal of Obama’s historic Cuba rapprochement, Trump’s recast U.S. policy hews closer to the hard line espoused by Cuban-American Republicans who derided Obama’s 2014 policy as a capitulation. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was instrumental in drafting Trump’s changes, with help from Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. Other Cuban-American lawmakers started getting briefed on the policy Thursday.

“If we’re going to have more economic engagement with Cuba, it will be with the Cuban people,” Rubio told the Miami Herald.

More here.

Photo credit: Al Diaz, Miami Herald staff

June 13, 2017

Rex Tillerson doesn't get into Cuba policy review specifics during Senate hearing

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@alextdaugherty 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not get into specifics when asked about President Donald Trump's Cuba announcement set for Friday in Miami as senators from both parties questioned Tillerson during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday.

"Can you give us some of the general contours you see shaping up relative to what that policy is going to be?" asked committee chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and Trump ally. 

"The general approach...is to allow as much of this continued commercial and engagement activity go to on as possible," Tillerson said. "We do see the sunny side as I describe it, we do see the benefits of that and to the Cuban people. But on the other hand, we think we have achieved very little in terms of changing the behavior of the regime in Cuba and the treatment of its people. Our concern is that they may be the biggest beneficiaries of all of this which promotes the continuance of that regime." 

Tillerson said that pressure on the Cuban government to implement democratic reforms "has been, in our view, largely removed now" after former President Barack Obama strengthened relations between the United States and Cuba in 2016. 

"I was down there not long ago and America has always felt that if it could do more business with folks it would pave the way for democracy," Corker said. "I do hope we end up with a policy that will cause the Cuban people themselves to reach their aspirations." 

New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall, a supporter of Obama's efforts, rattled off a host of business ventures now possible in Cuba after Obama's changes, including the introduction of Airbnb into the Cuban economy. 

"Do you agree we should continue these efforts or do you believe we should return to the failed policies of the Cold War?" Udall asked. 

"Well, what you have described is the sunny side of the relationship and it's all positive and it's great," Tillerson said. "There is the dark side though and that is Cuba has failed to improve it's own human rights record. What we have to achieve in approaching Cuba is if were going to sustain the sunny side of this relationship Cuba must begin to address the human rights challenges. Within the sunny side of the relationship there are troubling elements to us that bring the relationship into conflict with existing statute obligations. Are we inadvertently or directly providing financial support to the regime? Our view is, we are." 

Tillerson also said he supports efforts to improve internet access in Cuba, but hedged that the focus of the policy review is making sure the Cuban government does not financially benefit from increased U.S. involvement on the island. 

In late May, 55 senators from both parties signed on to a bill that would fully eliminate travel restrictions to the island. 

Cuban-American lawmakers Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart — who favor the elimination of what they see as concessions to the Cuban government — have been involved in the Cuba review in recent months. 

Friday's announcement will reportedly take place at the Manuel Artime Theater, a former church that is symbolic for Cuban exiles. 

June 12, 2017

Trump has not yet read final Cuba policy proposal

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via @ngameztorres

President Donald Trump is scheduled to announce a revised policy on relations with Cuba on Friday in Miami, but a White House spokeswoman told el Nuevo Herald that Trump had not yet seen the final recommendations following a lengthy review and has not made a decision.

“The president has not seen the final proposal and has not approved it. He is a very independent president in his way of thinking and it would not be the first time he throws something back to be reviewed,” White House spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré said.

She did say that the Manuel Artime Theater in Little Havana is one of the places the White House has been looking at for events to be held in the city.

The Miami Herald reported Monday that the theater canceled an event on Friday from the Miami Royal Ballet apparently to make way for a White House event.

Among the changes that would be considered by the Trump administration are measures to limit business ventures between U.S. companies and Cuban entities controlled by the military, in particular, those belonging to the conglomerate known as GAESA, the economic arm of the Revolutionary Armed Forces that controls nearly 60 percent of the Cuban economy. 

“The United States Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is expected to publish a list of Cuban entities controlled by the” Cuban military, said John Kavulich, president of U.S. Cuba Trade and Economic Council. Companies could be added to an OFAC blacklist to ban financial transactions involving these companies, he added.

Aguirre Ferré said a proposal to prohibit business with GAESA, “is one of the many possibilities discussed. It is being considered as one of the many options.

“But almost everything is being looked at.”

--NORA GAMEZ TORRES

Photo credit: Getty Images

Miami venue apparently set for Trump Cuba announcement

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@PatriciaMazzei

President Donald Trump plans to present his new Cuba policy Friday in Miami's Manuel Artime Theater, the Miami Herald has learned.

The White House apparently picked the venue over the Bay of Pigs museum in Little Havana, which is probably too small to accommodate all of the logistics of a traveling president. The Freedom Tower downtown is unavailable because it is undergoing renovations until November.

On Monday, theater managers notified at least one group -- a ballet school -- that it would have to move its scheduled rehearsal Thursday to accommodate an "emergency meeting" Friday. The Miami Royal Ballet then informed parents the city told them "there will be a White House event at the theater."

The White House has yet to release Trump's schedule. Without confirming the Miami event, a spokeswoman said the Artime theater was one of several locations under consideration.

The Artime theater, a former church, is symbolic for Cuban exiles. Manuel Artime was an exile leader with Brigade 2506, the Bay of Pigs veterans' group that endorsed Trump last October. The community theater frequently houses grassroots events that cannot afford grander venues.

--with David Smiley and Nora Gámez Torres