Muted White House celebration marks Obama Cuba anniversary
BY PATRICIA MAZZEI AND NORA GÁMEZ TORRES
It could have been a celebration of one of President Barack Obama's most
significant foreign-policy legacies. Instead, on Thursday, almost two
years to the day when Obama single-handedly overturned U.S. policy
toward Cuba, the White House assembled Cuban Americans, Cuban government
officials and business partners in Washington to offer the best
reassurances they could come up with that their efforts had not been in
President Obama himself has spoken to President-elect Donald Trump about
the importance of holding the course on Cuba. And once out of office,
Obama intends to remain involved in Cuba matters as a private citizen,
several meeting attendees told the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.
"He absolutely will," said Ric Herrero, one of more than 20 Cuban
Americans who met with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes.
Obama did not attend the private meetings, held across the street from
the White House at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on a
bitterly cold Washington day, though he sent each person a letter
encouraging them "to carry forward the work of strengthening our
partnership in the years ahead." Over an informal lunch, attendees
noshed on medianoche sandwiches, lechón and empanadas.
The White House did not specifically respond to a request for comment on
the president's Cuba plans or conversation with Trump. It's unclear when
the two men discussed Cuba, though they recently spoke by phone the day
after Cuba announced Fidel Castro's death.
In an MSNBC interview Thursday, Rhodes said Cuba has been "one of the
subjects of discussion" between Obama and Trump.
"President Obama made clear there are real opportunities for American
business down there," Rhodes said.
Thursday's meetings took place as proponents of closer U.S.-Cuba ties
face continued uncertainty over what approach Trump will take toward the
island's communist regime. While Obama's backers gathered in Washington,
Miami's hard-line Cuban-American members of Congress told reporters
Obama's Cuba policy has been "disastrous."
"The United States has received no benefit from these concessions, nor
have the Cuban people because the Castro regime has given up nothing —
nada," said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. "Hopefully with
President-elect Trump and a new administration, we may be in a position
to reverse some of the damage inflicted on the cause of freedom and
democracy in Cuba."
A crucial difference is over how much support to give Cuban dissidents.
Ros-Lehtinen and her colleagues consider them the only legitimate
political opposition; the people who met at the White House argue small
business owners known as cuentapropistas pose a bigger, more powerful
threat to the Cuban regime.
The White House has pushed for U.S. companies to complete agreements
with the Cuban government ahead of Trump's Jan. 20 inauguration, hoping
that having contracts in place will make Obama's policy more difficult
to undo. Cuba recently signed deals with cruise operators and Google,
though the U.S. is pressuring Cuba to do more.
Thursday morning, dozens of people assembled to hear from Rhodes,
Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the acting American ambassador in Havana; José
Ramón Cabañas, the Cuban ambassador in Washington, and three high-level
officials from the commerce, state and treasury departments. Cabañas'
speech is believed to be the first by a Cuban ambassador at a White
House event since the two countries renewed diplomatic ties. He
reiterated the Cuban government's opposition to the U.S. trade embargo —
the "blockade," he called it — and to the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo
Bay, several people in the audience said.
The Cuban delegation included representatives from the country's top
government banks, many of them already in Washington for talks held
Tuesday on commercial and financial regulations, according to Cuba's
foreign ministry. Also attending: U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa, both Democrats.
A chief concern among attendees was that Trump's "volatile" personality
could ignite a war of words with the Cubans, who have so far kept silent
about the president-elect's Cuba statements. On the other hand,
attendees noted, Trump doesn't have a clear political ideology, and
could be more interested in showing up Obama on Cuba by negotiating more
"We would like nothing more than the new administration to succeed
beyond what we did," Rhodes told reporters Tuesday.
On Thursday, Rhodes and DeLaurentis touted the administration's
accomplishments and, at different times, got emotional — Rhodes
remembering support from Cuban-American friends in the wake of stinging
criticism over his work, and DeLaurentis describing his work in Cuba,
where he began and might end his diplomatic career, as the most
rewarding of his life.
"It was partly a celebration of what has been achieved, and a mourning"
for the intense political fight that awaits, said one of the
participants, Ted Henken, a Baruch College sociology professor and Cuba
expert who attended the event.
After lunch, only DeLaurentis, Rhodes and Rhodes' staff met with the
smaller group of Cuban Americans.
Among the guests were Miami entrepreneur Hugo Cancio, who publishes an
arts magazine in Cuba; Felice Gorordo, founder of the Roots of Hope
nonprofit; former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez; John
McIntire, head of the Cuba Emprende Foundation; Miami attorney Ralph
Patino; Giancarlo Sopo, founder of the CubaOne foundation, and Miami
Foundation president and chief executive Javier Alberto Soto. After the
meeting, some attended a reception organized by the U.S.-Cuba Business
Council at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
One of their complaints: that Obama's statement following Castro's death
was much too anodyne. At the time, some of them privately contacted the
administration to express their dismay that Obama had not explicitly
acknowledged Cuban exiles' pain. The same point was made Thursday, one
attendee said, and Rhodes responded that his team had heard their concern.
Herrero, who used to head the pro-engagement Cuba Now group, described
the gathering as "bittersweet."
"There was just a lot of gratitude toward the administration for their
commitment to this cause and to everything they've done," said Herrero,
now president of Mano Americas, a social entrepreneurship nonprofit.
"But at the same time, there was also the lingering question: What next?
Where do we go from here? Because there is no certainty."
Trump took the first step toward setting his own foreign policy by
selecting Rex Tillerson, chairman and chief executive of Exxon Mobil, as
his secretary of state. Unlike other potential picks, Tillerson's Cuba
position remains unknown. Exxon's Cuban assets, worth tens of millions
of dollars, were seized after Castro's revolution.
Hardliners appreciate that Tillerson refused to join the Russian-owned
Rosneft in drilling for Cuban oil. "The current sanctioned law of [the]
United States will not allow us to participate in any activity in Cuba,"
he said at Exxon Mobil's 2014 annual shareholder meeting.
The other side, however, points to something else Tillerson said in the
same meeting — that his company usually opposes sanctions. "We do not
support sanctions, generally, because we don't find them to be effective
unless they are very well implemented comprehensively, and that's a very
hard thing to do."
Both camps agree the biggest indication of what direction Trump will
take lies in the people Tillerson appoints to run day-to-day Cuba
operations at the State Department. The same goes for two other key
departments dealing with Cuba, treasury and commerce, and for the
National Security Council.
To help the Trump transition, at least one female White House staffer
who worked with Rhodes on Cuba policy will remain in her position
through March, the attendees were told. They declined to name her to
Hardliners are certain Trump will reverse Obama's approach entirely.
Obama supporters detect a willingness from Trump to keep negotiating
with Raúl Castro's government. Regulatory changes, following a
top-to-bottom policy review, could take time to reverse — so long,
perhaps, that by then Castro might near his own retirement, scheduled
for February 2018.
"We're living through a lot of uncertainty, but there's a pretty strong
consensus that Trump is going to realize that turning back the clock is
going to be very difficult," said Carlos Saladrigas, president of the
Cuba Study Group and one of Thursday's White House guests. "Returning to
a failed policy doesn't make any sense."
Source: Muted White House celebration marks Obama Cuba anniversary |
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