Rubio and Diaz-Balart Talk Tough but Change Little About Cuba

Donald Trump announced his Cuba policy at the Manuel Artime Theater in Little Havana. See more photos of Trump's Cuba announcement here.
Donald Trump announced his Cuba policy at the Manuel Artime Theater in Little Havana. See more photos of Trump's Cuba announcement here.
Photo by Michele Eve Sandberg
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Inside the Oval Office, President Trump sits behind the resolute desk. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio sits to his right, Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart to his left. Both men whisper their plans on how to take down Raúl Castro. The two agree to conduct their negotiations in secrecy, passing handwritten notes to Trump through intermediaries like Gov. Rick Scott.

After all that skulduggery and secrecy, Trump, Rubio, and Diaz-Balart triumphantly revealed their plans today. And it turns out that, well, a hell of a lot is staying the same as it was under President Obama.

Americans can still travel to Cuba. The "wet foot, dry foot" policy is still kaput. Cubans can still send remittances to family members on the island despite fears that Trump might reverse that policy. Obama's changes allowing rum and cigar imports are still on the books. The Cuban Embassy that opened in Washington, D.C., under Obama will remain, as will the American Embassy in Havana.

So what exactly were these guys going on about in Little Havana today?

The biggest change is that American tourists now have to travel in private tour groups and use privately owned lodging instead of government hotels. Some businesses are now forbidden from working directly with Cuban military-owned companies.

And that's about it.

Despite those comparatively small new policies, Rubio and Diaz-Balart masterfully swung a week of positive PR out of the plan. Today they joined Trump in acting like their new rules will permanently cripple the Castro regime. But that's pretty hard to believe.

There's no doubt Trump's new rules will make it a bit more difficult for your average American to get to Cuba. But this is not a "cancellation" of Obama's policies, as Trump said from the stage today.

It will still be far easier to travel to Cuba tomorrow than it was before Obama took office. And it's surprising that Rubio, who has consistently waffled over whether he's a pro- or anti-Trump Republican, would cede this much political capital to the president this early in his tenure. The same goes for Diaz-Balart, who was long rumored to be shopping his support for the American Health Care Act in exchange for assurances that Trump would pass these (relatively paltry) Cuban crackdowns. Is this all Diaz-Balart (allegedly) traded his vote for?

Sen. Marco Rubio
Sen. Marco Rubio
Photo by Michele Eve Sandberg

"Whether it's six months or six years, Cuba will be free," Rubio said from the podium today, making the hyperbolic claim that the Castro regime could fall within this decade. "And when it is, I believe that the people on the island and history will say that perhaps the key moment began on this day, in this theater, and with a president that was willing to do what needed to be done to end the enslavement of the people of Cuba."

Those are some strong words. But to give a sense of how uncontroversial the changes are, many Cuban-American Democrats and pro-engagement organizations are actually pretty OK with Trump's plans.

Take, for example, Democratic state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, one of Miami's few staunch progressives.

"For all the Republican fanfare, including Gov. Scott’s visit to Miami, President Trump’s Cuba policy changes do not fundamentally alter the direction of President Barack Obama’s vision of empowering the Cuban people," Rodriguez said in a news release today. "That’s because in the long run, if done right, President Obama’s policy of fostering contact between the American people and the Cuban people will lead to greater freedom on the island and human rights for its people than decades of a failed policy of isolation."

Likewise, the Cuba One Foundation, a nonprofit that helps young Cuban-Americans reunite with family on the island, sent Trump a letter begging him not to crack down on Cuban travel. Now that the new rules are out, the foundation released a statement today saying it's totally cool with Trump's move.

"We look forward to seeing the final details of the President's policy, but our initial assessment is that it is largely consistent with our recommendations to the White House," Cuba One announced in its release.

A former Obama staffer told Mother Jones it was "notable" how many Obama-era rules will remain in place. Likewise, Ted Henken, a prominent Cuban political analyst at the City University of New York, called Trump's policy changes a "relative nibble" at Obama's regulations:

But that hasn't stopped Rubio and Diaz-Balart from milking this change for all it's worth. Yesterday both the Miami Herald and Politico published behind-the-scenes exposés promising a look "inside Marco Rubio’s campaign to shape Trump’s Cuba crackdown." The two lawmakers treated rolling back a few Cuban tourism policies like they were plotting a military ambush:

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.

The pair seems to have given the same account to the Herald. Both Rubio and Diaz-Balart didn't hold back when it came to bragging about how much they'd done:

“It is my hope that in five to ten years — or less — Cuba will look very different, and people will point to this as the moment that kind of triggered those changes,” Rubio told the newspaper.

“This is an issue that was not getting a lot of attention,” Diaz-Balart added. “Fortunately, we were able to get it from the back burner to the front burner just by being persistent.”

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart
Photo by Michele Eve Sandberg

It's obvious why the two lawmakers would push so hard to act like they scored a win here: Rubio has long been (rightfully) painted as a do-nothing senator obsessed with himself. And Diaz-Balart, Fidel Castro's nephew by marriage, has made cracking down on Castro his bread-and-butter issue for more than a decade. Diaz-Balart clearly believed Trump could make him relevant again after Obama's policies kneecapped Diaz-Balart's plans for the past eight years.

During today's rally in Little Havana, both legislators doubled down and launched a series of insults at the Castros that in no way matched up with what they were signing into law.

"This is my message to the Cuban people and to all those struggling with freedom: President Trump stands with you!" Diaz-Balart hollered into a microphone in English and Spanish today.

The whole ordeal was solid political theater. Trump got make South Florida's still-powerful Cuban voting bloc think he cares about it, and Rubio and Diaz-Balart got to talk tough for a while. The policy does restate the basic purpose of the embargo, and the White House released a statement outlining that "further improvements" are dependent upon whether human rights abuses stop on the island.

Relations could deteriorate over the next few years. But for now, most of the new rules Obama set in place still stand.

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