Secretive White House meeting reveals Obama's plan to visit Cuba in 2016
By SUSAN CRABTREE • 7/28/15 1:00 AM •Updated: 07/28/15 12:01 AM
A secretive White House meeting on Cuba last week revealed that
President Obama plans to visit the island nation early next year, and
also discussed the controversial idea of the Cuban government opening
consular offices in Miami.
After hailing embassy openings in Washington and Havana last week, the
White House held an off-schedule, private meeting on Thursday with U.S.
officials involved in the administration's Cuba policy. Nearly 80
activist members of the Cuban-American community from Florida and across
the United States — mostly Democrats — were also there.
Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama's closest advisers, was on hand, along
with White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and Roberta
Jacobson, assistant secretary of State for the western hemisphere.
The White House declined to talk about the meeting, and referred
questions about the meeting to the State Department. A State Department
spokesman then referred the same questions to the Cuban embassy, which
was already closed for the day.
According to sources familiar with the meeting, Rhodes told the group
that President Obama is considering visiting the island nation early
next year, depending on progress in U.S.-Cuba relations.
While that historic visit would likely help Obama cement his legacy as
the president who started to open up bilateral relations, it could be
marred by or even delayed by Cuba's arrest of dissidents. Those arrests
have continued despite Obama's gestures to Cuba, and could put Obama at
risk of appearing to be too friendly with a country that often arrests
members of political or religious groups dozens at a time.
Eduardo Jose Padron, the current president of Miami-Dade College who
came to the U.S. as a refugee at the age of 15, used the White House
meeting to ask about the state of human rights in Cuba, and State
Department officials acknowledged that it is a dangerous time for
dissidents on the island, one participant told the Examiner.
Andy Gomez, a retired assistant provost and dean of the University of
Miami's School of International Studies, said that so far, the Castro
regime doesn't appear to be changing its ways. Gomez previously served
on the Brookings Institution's Cuba Task Force from 2008 to 2010, and
told the Washington Examiner Cuba needs to demonstrate a stronger
commitment to human rights before Obama travels there or the U.S. agrees
to allow it to open a consulate in Florida.
"Up until now, the Cuban government hasn't even brought Cuban coffee to
the table … I don't see any signs of the Cuban government loosening up
their control," he said.
Pope Francis's visit to Cuba, scheduled for later in September, he said,
would be a good time for the Cuban government to release more political
prisoners and demonstrate a true commitment to improving relations.
The idea of a consular office of the Cuban government in Florida is one
that is already stirring debate among Cuban-Americans. During a
question-and-answer session in the White House meeting, one participant
asked about the chances for opening a Cuban consulate in Miami,
according to a source who was there.
The White House responded that it was up to the Cuban government to
decide when and where it would open the consulate.
But that response has only spurred more questions and concerns since the
meeting, some of which deal with how it might hurt Hillary Clinton's
White House bid. The opening of an outpost in the heavily anti-Castro
area of Miami could further anger Florida's politically powerful
Cuban-American community and create a backlash for Democrats that could
hurt Clinton's Florida presidential campaign operations.
"The consulate in Miami would create a bittersweet taste in the
Cuban-American community, including those supporting these
[normalization] changes," said Gomez. "It would also hurt any chances of
Hillary Clinton making inroads and gaining support among Miami's
"I don't think President Obama would do that to Hillary Clinton," he
added, noting that he believes a better place for the consulate would be
in Tampa or Key West.
Ever since Obama's December announcement to try to normalize relations
with Cuba, South Florida's major cities have fiercely debated the
opening of a consulate, which would provide passport and visas services
and emergency aide to visiting Cuban citizens, as well as other resources.
Officials have strongly objected to such an outpost in Miami-Dade
County, home to nearly a million Cubans, the largest concentration in
the world next to Havana.
But city leadership in Tampa, which has roughly 80,000 Cuban-Americans,
is embracing the idea, viewing it as an economic opportunity for the city.
While recent polls have documented a generational shift in
Cuban-American feelings about the Obama's administration's decision to
re-engage with the Castro government, the political leadership in Miami
is still heavily anti-Castro, dominated by descendants of those who fled
the 1959 communist revolution regime, and some who had their property
taken by Castro.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who vehemently opposes Obama's
decision to restore ties, is strongly against a consulate in Miami. Two
other Florida GOP congressmen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo,
also are opposed, along with Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado.
Ros-Lehtinen said opening a consulate in Miami is another Obama
administration effort to "legitimize an illegitimate regime."
"Placing a Cuban consulate in Miami is nothing but an insult to so many
who have been arrested, imprisoned, maimed, and tortured by the Castros
and their ruthless thugs," she told the Examiner. "This administration
has done nothing but give dictators concession after concession yet what
do we have to show for it? More arrests of pro-democracy activists in
Cuba, a continued harboring of fugitives from American justice, and
total disrespect for the suffering of victims of autocratic despots."
Ros-Lehtinen also argues that any Cuban consulate would serve as a
headquarters for espionage.
But others argue that South Florida Cuban-Americans are in real need of
consular services and don't view the opening as a serious problem.
"I would hope that it would make things easier for those traveling back
home, about 400,000 are traveling back to Cuba a year," said Jorge
Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International
University. "Right now, it's very expensive and cumbersome to apply for
a visa and make all kinds of travel arrangements."
Source: Secretive White House meeting reveals Obama's plan to visit Cuba
in 2016 | Washington Examiner -