Facing President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio issued a blunt warning: The administration’s plan to crack down on Cuba trade and travel was under threat.
Any effort by Trump to make good on his campaign promise to roll back former President Barack Obama’s historic accord with Raul Castro would be delayed, Rubio cautioned—not just from the Castro government and from outside business interests, but from within. It would be studied to death by government analysts who favor more engagement with Cuba, not less. It would be leaked to the news media. Stillborn with a thousand excuses by the bureaucrats.
So go it alone, Rubio told the president during their May 3 meeting.
“What you’ve committed to do on Cuba, what you want to do on Cuba, is never going to come from career staff. It’s going to have to come from the top down. You’re going to have to tell them what to do,” Rubio recalled telling the president as his fellow Miami Republican member of Congress, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, nodded in agreement.
“The career service people, in the State Department and Treasury and in other places, are not in favor of changing this policy,” Rubio recalled telling the president.
That one piece of advice from Rubio probably marks the moment that Trump’s Cuba policy achieved escape velocity, according to interviews with eight officials who helped craft or had knowledge of the drafting of Trump’s Cuba policy as well as correspondence and documents shared with POLITICO.
On Friday, the president will appear in Miami, the home base of the Cuban-American exile community to announce the new crackdown on Cuba.
The policy bears the unmistakable fingerprints of Rubio — a Trump antagonist during the Republican primary campaign last year who has grown increasingly close to Trump — and Diaz-Balart, also a staunch critic of Obama’s moves to normalize ties with the island nation.
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Their meeting with Trump, at 6 p.m. on a busy Wednesday in between the president’s meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and a dinner with evangelical leaders, included top administration officials, underscoring the importance of the issue for Trump. The president sat facing Rubio and Diaz-Balart on the right and left, respectively, of the Resolute Desk.
To Rubio’s right sat Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. To Diaz-Balart’s right was Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and, to his right, was national security adviser H. R. McMaster. On the couch behind Rubio sat White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and on the other couch, behind Diaz-Balart, was the president’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner.
After Rubio and Diaz-Balart pitched their warnings about bureaucratic opposition to cracking down on Cuba, Trump had a simple question: “OK. How do we deal with this?”
McMaster piped up: “I will lead this. I’ll get this done.”
“That’s when things started moving, started moving real fast,” Diaz-Balart told POLITICO, recalling the snippets of conversation.
Secrecy was essential. Trump’s circle of trust was small.
They wanted to prevent media leaks, fearing that other politicians and Cuba-aligned businesses would exploit any opening. But they were more concerned that electronic copies of policy memos could fall into the hands of foreign agents, including Russia, which has a long-standing friendship with the Castro government. So draft proposals were circulated by paper and hand-delivered between the White House, Rubio and Diaz-Balart’s offices and the National Security Council, which oversaw the development of the six-point, eight-page Presidential Policy Directive from Trump.
In one case, Florida Gov. Rick Scott personally handed a Diaz-Balart memo to Trump as the two rode in the presidential limousine with Rubio to an event in Orlando.
At the heart of Trump’s plan, obtained Thursday by POLITICO, is a clear prohibition on tourist travel and a restatement of the goals of the 56-year-old U.S.-Cuba embargo after it was codified into federal law in the 1996 LIBERTAD Act that Diaz-Balart’s brother, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, helped push through Congress when he was a House member.
The directive also prohibits U.S. travelers and businesses from generally engaging in most financial transactions with entities owned or substantially controlled by the Cuban military holding company called “Grupo de Administracion Empresarial S.A.,” known as GAESA. Since GAESA has de facto control over nearly every major part of Cuba’s economy — especially restaurants and hotels in Old Havana and along the famed beaches of Varadero — the prohibition would effectively intensify the embargo.
The GAESA prohibition last surfaced June 3, 2015, when Rubio announced it as a bill called the “Cuban Military Transparency Act.” Weeks later, the House Intelligence Committee introduced a companion at the urging of Diaz-Balart and Miami’s other Cuban-American Republican House members, Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Though it’s unclear who gets the credit for the original GAESA bill, it became more of Rubio’s central focus in helping Trump formulate his policy.
Opposition to Castro runs in the family for Diaz-Balart. His aunt was Fidel Castro’s first wife, and his cousin bears the diminutive nickname of the deceased dictator—“Fidelito.” Diaz-Balart admittedly had a broader “kitchen sink approach” where he’s asked for everything he could — and made sure to repeatedly stress the broader issue of human rights and a return to the principals of the LIBERTAD Act.
Unlike Rubio or Diaz-Balart, Trump has had an inconsistent record on Cuba.
In 1999, when he was considering an independent bid for president, Trump gave a stemwinder speech in which he condemned the brutality of the Castro regime and pledged not to do business there. But the year before, according to a Newsweek report, Trump sent an emissary to examine casino opportunities on the island. And in 2015, Bloomberg Businessweek reported last year, Trump Organization officials scouted for a possible golf course deal in Cuba.
At the outset of his presidential campaign in 2015, Trump said Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba was “fine,” though he thought the United States “should have made a stronger deal.” During a primary debate, Trump clashed with Rubio by saying he was “somewhere in the middle” on Cuba policy, while Rubio called for a reinforcement of the embargo.
“Here’s a good deal — Cuba has free elections, Cuba stops putting people in jail for speaking out, Cuba has freedom of the press,” Rubio said, an echo of Trump’s Miami speech in 1999. “Cuba takes all of those fugitives of American justice, including that cop killer from New Jersey, and send her back to the United States and to jail where she belongs. And you know what? Then we can have a relationship with Cuba. That’s a good deal.”
By September 2016, Trump had morphed back into a hard-liner.
“All the concessions that 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 unless the Castro regime meets our demands. Not my demands. Our demands,” Trump said, as 2,500 supporters cheered him on.