Why Trump wants to reverse the normalization of ties with Cuba

President Obama took steps toward normalization of US-Cuba relations, but Donald Trump gave Florida voters a different message.

Ramon Espinosa/AP
Airport workers holding US and Cuban flags receive a newly resumed JetBlue flight on the tarmac in Santa Clara, Cuba, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump told supporters in Miami on Friday that if elected, he would reverse President Obama’s steps to normalize relations with Cuba unless the government there assented to US demands on political and religious freedoms.

“The president’s one-sided deal for Cuba benefits only the Castro regime,” Mr. Trump told the crowd, according to the Guardian. “But all of the concessions that Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were done with executive order, which means the next president can reverse them. And that is what I will do unless the Castro regime meets our demands. They include religious freedom for the Cuban people and the freeing of political prisoners.”

The candidate’s comments are closer in tone to the blistering prescriptions of former Republican-primary foe Marco Rubio – a Cuban-American senator from Florida who has served as the chamber’s voice of hard-line conservative advocacy on Cuba – than the more resigned-sounding stance of Trump’s earlier iterations.

Asked last September by the Daily Caller for his opinion on the normalization, Trump called it “fine”, while adding that he believed “we should have made a better deal.” In March, he suggested that if steps toward normalization “worked out,” he might even open a hotel there, according to CNN.

The more severe tone seems to underscore the enduring importance of Cuban-American conservative voters in Florida, even as public opinion on normalization with Cuba has warmed. As Politico notes, Florida is a must-win swing state for Trump. He may be seeking to drum up support among Cuban-Americans, particularly in Miami-Dade County, where local Republican leaders have largely withheld their support for him, citing his rhetoric on immigration – and where he lost handily to Senator Rubio in the primaries, his only loss in the entire state. A majority of registered Republicans in Miami-Dade are Hispanic, many of them of Cuban descent.

Much of the Republican Party is still pro-embargo. But as public opinion in Florida begins to change, some members of the GOP have shown signs of openness to Cuba as well.

A poll conducted by Florida International University after President Obama’s March visit to Cuba found that 63 percent of Cuban-American respondents in Miami-Dade County, the community’s historic heart, opposed the embargo. Large majorities also supported increased economic and diplomatic engagement.

As The Christian Science Monitor’s Howard Franchi wrote in January 2015 after the Obama administration announced new rules on travel and trade with the island, Republicans in the Senate “both condemned and praised” the move.

“This is a windfall for the Castro regime that will be used to fund its repression against Cubans, as well as its activities against US national interests in Latin America and beyond,” Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and Cuban-American, said in a statement.

Countering the Obama argument that US engagement and economic activity will benefit Cubans more than isolation, he added, “this one-sided deal is enriching a tyrant and his regime at the expense of US national interests and the Cuban people.”

But other Republicans praised the new regulations and signed on to the Obama argument that economic engagement and an expanded American presence can help foster political change – an argument with deep Republican roots.

On Friday, Trump also made gestures of solidarity with Miami’s Venezuelan community, one that often makes common cause with Cuban exiles.

“Miami is full of hard-working Venezuelans,” he said, according to the Guardian. “The next president must stand with all people oppressed in our hemisphere.”

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