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"Playing a Card": How Trump Used Cuba to Gain Points in Florida

Trump honored veterans of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and announced new sanctions against Cuba on September 23.
Trump honored veterans of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and announced new sanctions against Cuba on September 23.

Who would you rather see in the White House?

That's the question I asked Cubans in December 2015 when probing their opinions on the Republican presidential nominees for a documentary I was working on.

"If I had a choice, I would choose Donald Trump," a young Cuban woman shopping in downtown Havana told me.

"He knows that Cuba is a virgin market," added another lady walking by.

"He would be very interested in investing here, so I don't think he would undo everything," said a man in a baseball cap.

Those interviews are featured in The War on Cuba, a documentary series released today by Belly of the Beast, a media startup covering Cuba and U.S.-Cuban relations.

After four years of grueling sanctions the Trump administration has imposed on Cubans, the Havana residents we interviewed sound naive, even quaint, today. But they can be forgiven for having been overly optimistic: They spoke at a time of great hope, while the buzz and excitement of normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba was in the air.

Five years ago, friendlier relations seemed here to stay. Even Trump — back then just a larger-than-life real estate mogul — agreed that "the concept of opening with Cuba is fine."

We didn't know it at the time, but the same month we shot those interviews, Trump Organization executives were on the island looking into opening a golf course. Neither did we know that Jason Greenblatt, the Trump Organization's chief legal officer, had been to Havana to scope out real estate. And we had no idea that Trump had registered his brand in Cuba in 2008, opening the way for Trump hotels, casinos, golf courses, and even beauty contests when the time was right.

But by September 2016, Trump had done a 180. Previous talk of getting a "better deal" than Barack Obama on Cuba went out the window, as Trump pronounced in Miami: "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!" The following month, Trump became the first presidential candidate in history to be endorsed by the 2506 Brigade, the Cuban paramilitary group that tried to overthrow Fidel Castro's regime in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

In office, Trump has reverted to the same Cuba policy that Republican and Democratic presidents, with the exception of Obama, have presided over for the last 60 years: a pressure-cooker strategy that aims to topple the left-wing regime by making life so difficult for people on the island that they have no choice but to rise up. He has jacked up the embargo by banning cruise ships, rolled back air travel, and capped remittances that Cuban-Americans can send to family members back home.

Dreams of Trump Towers in Havana cut sharply against this "starve 'em out" war of attrition. So why the volte-face?

In a word: Florida. The nation's biggest battleground state is home to 1.5 million Cuban-Americans who, because of the Electoral College, have long played an outsize role in presidential campaigns. Trump managed to squeeze out Hillary Clinton in Florida in 2016, and analysts say he likely needs to carry the state again to get a second term.

"Trump doesn't give a shit about Cuba," says sociologist Guillermo Grenier, director of Florida International University's 2020 Cuba poll. "He's playing to a local audience — playing a card that has been laid out for him, one that the Republicans have nurtured for the last 40 years."

The art of the deal

Throughout 2016, Trump clashed with Marco Rubio as they fought for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump mocked Rubio's big ears, while Rubio called Trump a con artist and made innuendos about his small hands. But after Rubio dropped out of the presidential race in March 2016, the "very stable genius" cut a deal with the Miami politician, whose political brand centers on his uncompromising opposition to communist Cuba.

"Trump understood from very early on that in order to win re-election, he needed to lock in Florida," says Ric Herrero, executive director of Cuba Study Group, a D.C. think tank that advocates for engagement with Cuba. "An agreement was struck from the outset that in exchange for him reversing Obama policy and doing what Marco Rubio and [Florida congressman] Mario Díaz-Balart wanted him to do on Cuba policy, he would enjoy their unwavering support on the rest of his agenda."

Rubio and Trump strategists believe the route to 2020 victory in Florida runs through Cuban-American voters, and that the best way to get the vote out is to heat up tried-and-tested anti-Cuba rhetoric.

After Trump took office, he passed down a key instruction to his Latin American staffers: Make Marco Rubio happy. Though not formally part of the Trump administration, Rubio has a direct line to the president. Dozens of former White House officials and current Republican lawmakers agree that the Florida politician "has effectively become the secretary of state for Latin America," according to Politico. And in that capacity, Rubio has been able to plant Cuban-Americans in key positions within the Trump administration.

Chief among them is Mauricio Claver-Carone, a career lobbyist whom Rubio placed on the White House transition team in 2016 before moving him to the National Security Council in 2018. Claver-Carone has penned all White House policy pertaining to Cuba since then.

Likewise, John Barsa, a Cuban-American with no experience in humanitarian aid, heads up the U.S. Agency for International Development, managing the organization's $20 billion budget. Rubio acolyte Carlos Trujillo, also a Cuban-American, was catapulted from Florida state legislator to the U.S.'s representative to the Organization of American States, the hemisphere's premier forum for political discussion — a meteoric promotion.

The upshot is that Cuban-Americans have more power in the Trump administration than in any other administration in U.S. history.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio with President Donald Trump in 2017.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio with President Donald Trump in 2017.

To understand how Cuban-Americans came to hold such sway, you have to go back to the 1959 Cuba Revolution. Fidel Castro's seizure of power that year shook the upper sectors of Cuban society. In the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, some fled and others left by choice. In the mass emigration from the island to the U.S., "Cuba's displaced elite was disproportionately represented," according to Cuban-American scholar Lisandro Pérez, a professor of Latin-American studies at the City University of New York (CUNY).

The new arrivals founded a Cuban-American exile community in Miami viscerally opposed to socialism. They saw themselves as exiles rather than immigrants, waiting it out in the U.S. until the revolutionary regime, like many governments on the island before, was overthrown.

As the years ticked by and a plethora of bizarre assassination attempts — poisoned pens, exploding cigars, deadly lovers — failed, the regime remained. By the 1980s, anti-Castro Cuban-Americans began gaining citizenship, registering to vote, and organizing to influence policy.

During the Reagan administration, the Cuban-American lobby took shape. In 1981, Cuban-born construction and media tycoon Jorge Mas Canosa founded the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). The CANF relied on contributions from powerful Cuban families who arrived in the U.S. with fortunes and accumulated new wealth in Florida.

"Cuban-Americans have exerted enormous influence on the formulation of US policy...by fundraising for members of Congress and by accessing the highest levels of the executive branch," says Pérez, the CUNY professor. The Cuban diaspora, he argues, has enjoyed a "determining influence" on maintaining and even tightening a U.S. policy toward Cuba that seeks regime change in Havana.

Over the past 60 years, wealthy Cuban-Americans have gone from being mere instruments of U.S. Cuba policy (as in the failed CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion) to becoming policy influencers through lobbying groups like the CANF to becoming the main architects of Cuba policy, as seen in the Trump administration.

Jose "Pepe" Fanjul
Jose "Pepe" Fanjul

Family ties

When Marco Rubio announced his candidacy for the presidency in 2016, the first person he embraced when he walked offstage was José "Pepe" Fanjul. The Fanjuls, sugar barons who left Cuba in the 1960s after their assets were wrested away, moved to Palm Beach County, where they built up Florida Crystals Corp., a sugarcane-growing and -refining company that produces about 40 percent of the state's sugar.

"When we came to this country, we decided it was important to support people whose views we agreed with," Pepe Fanjul told the Sun Sentinel in 2002. "Being of Cuban origin, we saw that not getting involved in politics resulted in a series of bad governments there."

The Fanjuls have been a Rubio benefactor since he began his political career, pouring millions of dollars into his campaigns ever since his election to the Florida House of Representatives in 2000. But the family plays both sides of the aisle: In 2016, while Pepe hosted a fundraiser for Trump, his older brother Alfonso "Alfy" Fanjul Jr. held a $50,000-per-plate Miami Beach fundraiser for Hillary Clinton. At the family's 7,000-acre hacienda and resort in the Dominican Republic, Alfy has wined and dined the Clintons, while Pepe has hosted George W. Bush, Rudy Giuliani, and Henry Kissinger.

Fanjul Corp., one of the family's main holdings, donated $1.64 million in the 2019-2020 election cycle to both Republicans and Democrats, according to Federal Election Commission figures. Other prominent Cuban-American families — most famously the Bacardis, whose rum empire was based in Cuba prior to the revolution — have also played the lobbying and campaign-financing game for decades. A 2000 study by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics found that, the Israel lobby aside, "Cuban-American money dwarfs that of every other foreign policy/ethnic interest group."

The Fanjuls make contributions at the local, state, and national levels, both personally and through their companies. They lobby to maintain price supports for their sugar, to limit imports of cheap foreign sugar, and to forestall environmental regulations that would hit their bottom line. (Environmental groups say phosphorus runoff from Fanjul sugar refineries has created toxic algae in Florida waterways.) But all along, ultra-rich Cuban-American families have been bound by one overriding quest: "recovering" their homeland. Behind the scenes, they have had a hand in all of the major sanction legislation that has hit the island over the last three decades.

The 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, which tightened sanctions while Cubans were going through a deep economic and malnutrition crisis, was sponsored by Robert Torricelli, a Democratic congressman for New Jersey. Mas Canosa and the CANF began making campaign contributions to Torricelli when he became chairman of the House Subcommittee on Western Affairs in 1991, and Torricelli said he "began drafting the Cuban Democracy Act" while on Mas Canosa's yacht. "Whatever the Foundation wants, the Foundation gets," Torricelli told subcommittee staff, according to the book Back Channel to Cuba .

The 1996 Helms Burton Act further tightened the screws by hitting multinationals investing on the island with sanctions. Dubbed the "Bacardi bill" in congressional circles, it was drafted with the advice of Ignacio Sanchez and Otto Reich, attorneys whose firms were on the Bacardi payroll during the period. Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, one of the architects of the legislation, received substantial campaign contributions from Bacardi-organized fundraisers throughout his career.

Title III of the Helms Burton Act allows any American — including Cubans who claimed U.S. citizenship after 1959 — to sue companies alleged to be "trafficking" in their property, despite the fact that when the revolutionary government nationalized the private property of Cuban and U.S. companies, it acted in accordance with Cuban and international law. Successive presidents have suspended the implementation of Title III because of the problems it would create with France, Spain, and Canada, all of which have firms operating in Cuba. But the Trump administration activated Title III for the first time last year, unleashing "the most potent economic measure the U.S. has taken against Cuba in the last 60 years," according to William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University.

Exxon-Mobil is now suing Cuba for $280 million in damages for the nationalization of a refinery in Havana. John Shepard – whose grandfather managed a Havana hotel built by the mob — has also filed suit. And Javier García-Bengochea, a prominent Florida neurosurgeon, is suing Carnival, claiming its cruise liners are docking in a port once part-owned by his family. Many of those filing suits are also involved in campaign financing: Over the last two decades, García-Bengochea has contributed more than a quarter of a million dollars to both Republican and Democratic candidates.

Scenes from Havana in the summer of 2020.
Scenes from Havana in the summer of 2020.
Photo by Frank Padrón Rojas

A crisis of representation

The Cuban-Americans riding high in the Trump administration are a particular species. Rubio, Claver-Carone, Barsa, and Trujillo are all cut from the same cloth: male, monied, and hell-bent on crushing the Communist-ruled government in Cuba. In Florida, wealthy Cuban-Americans have used their political and media power to ensure that the dominant narrative people hear is one of regime change. That's true at the national level, too: Every single Cuban-American in Congress — Sens. Marco Rubio (FL-R), Ted Cruz (TX-R), and Bob Menéndez (NJ-D), and Reps. Mario Díaz-Balart (FL-R), Albio Sires (NJ-D), Alex Mooney (WV-R), and Anthony González (OH-R) — has taken a hawkish position toward the island.

But that monolithic position hides the diversity of views in today's Cuban-American community. The 2020 FIU Cuba poll, the authoritative survey of Cuban-American attitudes in South Florida, shows that most Cuban-Americans support the U.S. embargo on Cuba. But the measure's popularity has fallen over the years: 80 percent supported the sanctions when polling began in 1991, compared to 54 percent today. Back in 2016 — after Obama had put forward different rhetoric and implemented a different policy — support for sanctions among Cuban-Americans dipped as low as 32 percent.

Whereas exiles who arrived in the '60s and '70s tend not to have much family on the island, those who arrived more recently do. Later arrivals are less concerned with "recovering" their homeland and their assets, and more concerned with visiting and helping loved ones on the island. While the Trump administration has cut air travel to all destinations apart from Havana, the 2020 FIU poll found that 65 percent of those polled support airline travel to all regions of the island.

Long-term support for the hardliners' agenda is ebbing not only in the Cuban-American community at large, but also within the Cuban-American aristocracy. Many younger Bacardi heirs will be voting Democrat, according to a source close to the family, and sugar tycoon Alfy Fanjul — formerly one of the anti-Castro movement's main funders — has traveled back to the island of his birth to have conversations with Cuban officials. In 2014, he told the Washington Post he would be willing to invest in Cuba under the "right circumstances."

As the old guard dies out, the anti-Castro lobby is forced to live off a dwindling pool of donations. Over the long run, demographic trends, along with substantial U.S. corporate interest in the island, may outmuscle the hardliners. 

Scenes from Havana in the summer of 2020.
Scenes from Havana in the summer of 2020.
Photo by Frank Padrón Rojas

But the lack of representation runs deeper. While the U.S. is home to 2.4 million Cuban-Americans, Cuba is home to 11.2 million people who might be even more affected by the outcome of November's election.

In my seven years living in and reporting on Cuba, it has been impossible to miss how the sanctions affect people's lives. I know of children with bone cancer who have needlessly had legs amputated because oncologists couldn't import the bone implants they needed from the U.S. One year ago, as new measures against the island were being announced every few weeks, the pediatric cardiologist Eutivides Aguilera Sánchez told me: "Every night when I hear of new sanctions on the news, I know it will be more difficult for me to save lives."

Right now, most medicines are out of stock in pharmacies in Havana. That wasn't the case before Trump was elected. During the pandemic, the sanctions have blocked shipments to the island of masks and protective gloves. And two Swiss firms from which Cuba used to purchase ventilators have refused to sell to the island since they were taken over in 2018 by Vyaire Medical, a medical firm based in Illinois. It stands to reason that if a country is unable to import the medicine and medical equipment it needs, people will die.

The irony is that U.S. policy toward Cuba these days has less to do with Cuba than it does with winning votes. The lives of 11 million people are thrown to the wolves for electoral effect.

"Republicans, particularly those in South Florida, know that taking a hard stance on Cuba helps mobilize their base on Election Day," says Herrero, the Cuba Study Group director. "There's no lower-cost way to virtue-signal that you are anti-socialist than by kicking Cuba. If you hurt people, it doesn't matter, as they aren't your voters."

Cuban journalist Daniel Montero contributed to this story.

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