President Donald Trump’s impending plan to reverse some of the Obama administration’s efforts to reopen relations with Cuba isn’t getting quite the reaction he might have wanted among GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill, which may be a reflection of changing views on the issue throughout the country.
Sen. John Barasso (R-Wyo.) might have said it best when he pointed out that some of his Republican colleagues on the Hill have traveled to Cuba and embraced the changes brought by the Obama administration.
“Other members think it’s been a terrible mistake — some of whom ran for president,” Barrasso told Independent Journal Review, jokingly referring to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. “Those are the people who’ve been weighing in on this most heavily.”
In December of 2014, former President Barack Obama announced he would end sanctions and encourage commerce between the two countries in exchange for the release of 53 prisoners and concessions on human rights.
The 2016 Human Rights Watch World Report, however, noted local human rights groups claim there are dozens more political prisoners still in Cuba they can’t access, and human rights overall haven’t improved in Cuba in the two-and-a-half years since Obama implemented the changes.
And in part for that reason, Rubio favors a tougher line toward Cuba. He’s spoken directly to Trump about Cuba several times since the president was inaugurated.
“I am confident that President Trump will treat Cuba like the dictatorship it is, and that our policy going forward will reflect the fact that it is not in the national interest of the United States for us to be doing business with the Cuban military,” Rubio said in April.
The Trump administration has considered several options to roll back some of the Obama-era changes, including limiting tourism and sanctioning businesses that have ties to the Cuban military. Critics believe sanctioning companies related to the Cuban military would prove too cumbersome to work through, raising questions of how the United States would determine which companies would be subject to the regulations.
Trump will announce further details of his Cuba policy in a speech in Miami set for Friday. Lawmakers aren’t expecting any surprises.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the first Cuban-American elected to Congress, told IJR she expects Trump to roll back some of the less-complicated changes made under the Obama administration. She said he’ll likely stay away from reversing flights and limits on financial transactions because of the legal implications that would arise, though.
And that may be because of rapidly changing public opinion: Six in 10 Republicans support policies of “expanded travel and trade with Cuba,” according to a recent Morning Consult national poll released Monday by Engage Cuba, a group that wants to see tighter U.S./Cuba relations.
“Sixty-five percent of American voters support maintaining Obama-era Cuba policy, while only 18 percent oppose,” the group noted of the poll’s findings in a statement Monday.
Like Rubio, most Republicans urging the president to act are focusing on human rights, where they see a way for Trump to cut a middle ground.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said the Obama administration gave the Castro regime more leeway to harm Cubans than it had before.
“There’s been more oppression, more stifling of free speech, more imprisonment, more torture,” he said. “I’m hopeful that the new administration will use the full authority of the United States government to encourage free speech, free elections, and the protection of human rights in Cuba.”
The top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) had a position not altogether different, but couched it this way: “Continue the Obama initiatives with a concentration on human rights, which is not something I’ve seen from the Trump administration in any other area, so I’d be pleasantly surprised if they would raise that issue.”
His colleague on the committee, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), said he didn’t want to see Trump go backward on Obama’s steps closer to Cuba and criticized Trump for his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, a country known for its human rights abuses.
“I found the contrast so striking during the president’s trip that he didn’t want to lecture Saudi Arabia or other nations in the area, but he was so free to not just lecture, but chastise our NATO allies,” Kaine said. “It made no sense to me.”
Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) also pointed to a double standard in U.S. policy toward countries like Saudi Arabia versus Cuba, but he didn’t think it should prompt a softer stance on Cuba.
“We can point to Saudi Arabia, we can point to China. There’s a lot of bad actors in the human rights sphere, and I don’t try to pretend that that’s otherwise,” Mast told IJR. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we take the pressure off one.”