Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Hardliners, defenders battle over Cuba policy

Published:Wednesday | June 14, 2017 | 6:00 AM
Two passengers deplane from JetBlue flight 387 waving a United States and Cuban national flag in Santa Clara, Cuba on August 31, 2016. JetBlue 387 was the first commercial flight between the US and Cuba in more than a half century as relations between the two countries improve.
A man walks in front of the Manzana de Gomez Kempinski five-star hotel in Havana, Cuba, Monday, May 8. In the heart of the capital, the business arm of the Cuban military has transformed a century-old shopping arcade into a temple to conspicuous capitalism as Cuba opens up for business.
1
2

Cuba's best friends in the United States used to be a smattering of Washington policy wonks and leftists who sent donated school buses and computers to the communist-led island.

Five months into the Trump administration, Cuba has a new set of American defenders a coalition of high-tech firms, farming interests, travel companies and young Cuban-Americans thrown into action by the looming announcement of a new Cuba policy. On the opposite side, hardline members of Miami's Cuban exile community, who suddenly have a direct line into the White House through Cuban-American Republican members of Congress and the administration.

President Donald Trump planned to announce the new policy on Friday in Miami but had not yet decided all the details, according to a White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations.

The US Embassy in Havana will remain open, but Americans can expect actions by the departments of State, Treasury and Homeland Security to ban US trade with any Cuban entity linked to the military. Also planned: a reduction in the number of categories for which Americans do not need US government licences to go to Cuba. The US will demand greater internet access and the release of prisoners and return of American fugitives in Cuba. President Barack Obama's repeal of the special Cuban immigration privileges known as wet-foot/dry-foot will not change, the official said.

"If this were a traditional policy environment, we'd be having great success," said Collin Laverty, head of one of the biggest Cuba travel companies and a consultant for US corporations seeking business in Cuba. "We're certainly winning the debate for public opinion and in foreign policy circles, but unfortunately, it appears that it'll come down to a back-room political deal between the president and Cuban-American members of Congress."

The most prominent figures still seeking a reversal in the opening are Sen Marco Rubio and Rep Mario Diaz-Balart, both Cuban-Americans. The Trump government wants to maintain good relations with both Rubio, who sits on the Senate committee investigating Trump's relations with Russia, and Diaz-Balart, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Laverty is one of the most prominent figures in the new pro-Cuba lobby, which has been furiously tweeting and writing letters to the White House in a last-minute rush to sell the Trump administration on the benefits of the friendly relations established by President Barack Obama on December 17, 2014.

A particular focus is saving Obama's easing of US travel to Cuba, which tripled the number of American travellers to the island and pumped tens of millions of dollars into the island's private hospitality sector.

"Thousands of Americans are visiting Cuba and fuelling the fastest growth in its private sector since 1959," CubaOne, a group of young pro-engagement Cuban-Americans, wrote in an open letter to Trump on Monday.

After months of public silence, Airbnb last week released a report on its activities in Cuba, which have put US$40 million into the hands of private bed-and-breakfast owners since the online lodging giant became the first major US company into Cuba in the wake of Obama's declaration of dÈtente. Google, which installed servers on the island to speed Cuban internet service last year, spoke out for the first time Monday in favour of maintaining relations.

A HARD POLICY

"Google has played a formative role in the first chapter of Cuba's connectivity story, but this is just the beginning," Brett Perlmutter, head of strategy and operations for Google Cuba, said at a conference in Miami on Monday. "Connecting Cuba will require an entire ecosystem of players ... . It will also require the US maintaining a policy that allows telecommunications firms work in Cuba."

Even the Cuban government is getting into the game, with high-ranking diplomats tweeting pro-engagement articles and foreign correspondents given a series of interviews with officials from the powerful, secretive Interior Ministry about the new era of US-Cuban cooperation in areas such as human trafficking, drug smuggling and the prosecution of fugitives.

Two officials told The Associated Press that they were now in regular contact with the FBI, DEA and other US law-enforcement agencies, sharing information about investigations that cross jurisdictions.

"The start of direct relations between the agencies has already shown results," Lt Col Yoandrys Gonzalez Garcia, head of the Cuban National Police, told the AP. "Going back now would send a bad message to delinquents and criminals that there can be impunity."

Those messages are scoffed at by many members of South Florida's Cuban-American exile community, who call for starving Cuba of funds in order to topple its communist government and bring capitalism and multiparty democracy to the island. While most Americans support closer relations with Cuba, Cuban-Americans' ability to influence Florida's 29 electoral has long given them heavy influence over American policy.

"We're confident that the president has listened to us. We're confident that it will be a step in the right direction," said Marcell Felipe, president of the Inspire America Foundation, an anti-Castro group that has been running ads on Spanish-language stations in Miami urging Cuban-Americans to demand a hardline policy from Trump.

He said he agreed with pro-engagement forces that their efforts were likely in vain.

"The real question to them there is, 'Why is it that we have an inside line to the White House?'" Felipe said. "It's because we have the votes."

- AP