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Cuba tries to figure out political standing in Trump era
BY PATRICIA MAZZEI AND NORA GÁMEZ TORRES

Alarmed by signs that its fragile relationship with the United States
might fall apart under President-elect Donald Trump, the Cuban
government is quietly reaching out to its contacts in the United States
to determine how best to protect the communist regime’s tenuous
diplomatic position.

The Cubans are trying to figure out who Trump is, what his real thinking
about Cuba might be and how they might be heard by his fledgling
administration.

“Los cubanos están cagados,” — the Cubans are shitting themselves — said
a businessman who regularly meets with Cuban government officials and
told the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald they contacted him after
Trump’s victory. “They have no communication channels to Trump.”

Among the sources who told the Herald that they’ve spoken to the Cuban
government are middlemen and representatives of U.S. business and civic
interests in Cuba. All requested anonymity for fear of appearing overly
friendly with Cuba’s communist regime. The Cuban government did not
respond to a request for comment sent to its embassy in Washington.

“We’ve told them they have to wait and see,” said an advocate of more
U.S. engagement with Cuba who said Cubans want a better read of the
political landscape under Trump. “It’s still too early.”

Cuban officials have telephoned and, in some cases, met in person with
Americans closely involved with business or advocacy groups that support
increasing ties between the two countries. The Americans have
consistently told Cubans they need to hurry to complete pending
commercial agreements with U.S. companies to further solidify the
reestablished relations — and make it more difficult for a Trump
administration to undo them.

The Cubans’ chief problem: The contacts they’ve spent years cultivating
had the ear of President Barack Obama’s administration. No one close to
Trump is — at least publicly — an advocate for their cause.

“They did not anticipate a President-elect Trump,” said Jorge Mas
Santos, president of the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami.

Pro-engagement forces don’t have an in with Trump, either.

“I don’t think that there’s anyone inside at this point that presents
the balanced view that needs to be presented,” said Mike Fernández, a
Coral Gables healthcare executive and major Republican advocate for
Obama’s Cuba opening. “Right now, I think the other side does have an
upper hand.”

In contrast, Cuba hardliners have several voices close to Trump —
including Vice President-elect Mike Pence, a former Indiana congressman.

“He’s 100 percent a fighter,” said former U.S. Rep. Lincoln
Diaz-Balart, whose Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute honored
Pence in 2010. “He’s met with former political prisoners. He knows the
issue.”

Pence is known to exchange text messages on occasion with U.S. Rep.
Mario Diaz-Balart, the only sitting Miami Republican in Congress who
voted for Trump. Diaz-Balart declined to discuss his texting habits but
said he speaks regularly with several Trump transition team members.

“Mario Diaz-Balart is our guy: We have designated him as our guy to deal
with the Trump folks,” said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who called
Pence the locals’ “conduit,” though she doesn’t agree with him on
everything.

On Cuba, however, “he agrees with us,” she said. “We’ve worked very
closely with him through the years.” She and her husband once took Pence
and his family boating on Biscayne Bay, she said.

Trump’s transition is teeming with other strident Cuba conservatives:
James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation is on the State Department
team; Mauricio Claver-Carone of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC is on the
Treasury Department team; U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes of California is on the
executive team. Trump’s also getting advice from Cuban Americans such as
Miami attorney A.J. Delgado, Harvard lecturer Carlos Díaz Rosillo, and
Yleem Poblete, former chief of staff to the House Foreign Affairs
Committee under Ros-Lehtinen.

No one has been assigned specifically to the Cuba portfolio, a
responsibility that will likely fall on whoever gets to run the Western
Hemisphere desk in Trump’s State Department. Among the four finalists
for secretary of state are former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and
former Republican nominee Mitt Romney, both beloved by hardliners. Trump
met Friday with another of their favorites, former U.S. ambassador to
the United Nations John Bolton.

Yet another contender, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate
Committee on Foreign Relations, is considered by the pro-engagement
crowd as the candidate most likely to hear them out. Corker quietly
traveled to Havana last month and met with both Cuban government
officials and political dissidents.

Pro-engagement activists have raised the specter of a mass Cuban
migration if Trump provokes Raúl Castro with, say, a tweet — and Castro
responds by opening the island’s maritime borders, a nightmare scenario
experienced by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Advocates who pushed for the Cuba thaw hold out hope that Trump will act
more like a businessman than like a politician when it comes to Cuba. As
president-elect, Trump has pledged to “terminate” Obama’s policy unless
Cuba makes significant concessions. As a real-estate developer, Trump
explored business opportunities in Cuba, to the point that he might
have violated the U.S. trade in 1998.

Reverting to old policy would hurt the Cuban people, the advocates
argue, and give an excuse to loyalists within Raúl Castro’s
government — who have always been suspicious of U.S. overtures — to halt
economic reforms.

“The message we must send Trump is that if he closes everything off,
he’s going to destroy the lives of entrepreneurs who already have their
little business, and it’s going to prompt the Cuban hierarchy to return
to its bunker because they’ve known how to survive worse,” said Carlos
Saladrigas, president of the Cuba Study Group, which promotes more
U.S.-Cuba ties. “The person who was the epicenter of the hardline has
died, which opens up a path for reformer elements in the government to
make progress. Now’s not the time to close them off.”

Though pro-engagement activists are preparing for what they consider the
worst-case scenario — four years in the political wilderness — some also
think hardliners convinced Trump will trash all of Obama’s actions are
overplaying their political hand.

“The ultra-conservatives are going to have a real tough time,” said Joe
Arriola, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Public Trust. “They
talk big now, they talk tough now, but I don’t think Trump is going to
change everything. There will be changes — it’s not going to be the
same. But the American public does not believe in the freaking embargo.”

Undoing all of Obama’s measures would make less sense now that Fidel
Castro is dead and Raúl Castro has announced his retirement in February
2018, several activists said.

“Castro’s death represents a real opportunity for change,” said U.S.
Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who like a number of other
Republicans outside of South Florida actively backed both Trump and
closer U.S.-Cuba ties. “Both camps, as seemingly divided as they may be,
want the same thing, which is change in Cuba and change for the Cuban
people.”

Moderate voices are also trying to make inroads with Trump and his
advisers, including Brian Ballard, a finance vice-chair for the
inauguration who knows activists on all sides of the Cuba issue from his
years of representing lobbying clients across Florida.

Among the moderates are Cuban Americans like Mas Santos, who knows Trump
personally. The Cuban American National Foundation invited Trump to
Miami in 1999 to address Cuba policy, a speech many Miami Cuban
Americans cite as a reason for backing Trump.

Mas Santos predicted Trump will push for more concessions from Cuba —
and get them.

“Cuba needs this more than the United States,” he said, adding that the
Cuban government’s silence following Trump’s election was notable. “I
think it’s very significant and very telling that there’s really been no
reference to Trump from the Cuban regime over the past three weeks.”

Bertica Morris, a Cuban-American political consultant in Orlando who
served as one of Trump’s campaign surrogates, said Trump should push
Cuba to reciprocate without doing away with Obama’s policy, which would
mark a return to a Bush-era approach.

“Trump said he’s going to try to make a better deal — that’s normal —
but I hope he’s not going to reverse it all,” she said. “He’s a
businessman. I think he’s going to look at what’s happening and what he
can negotiate.”

Former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, another Orlando Cuban-American
Republican, said he might be the sort of person who could fill a
middle-ground role in any Cuba policy dialogue. He and Morris have
discussed that approach, he said, and Martinez has been in occasional
touch with some Trump transition members.

“I would take the approach of looking at what has taken place, what
seems to work, and what doesn’t seem to work,” said Martinez, who didn’t
support Trump during the Republican primary but ultimately voted for him
in the general election.

“What an unusual moment we have now, with Fidel passing. Inevitably, in
Cuba, they’ve got to be thinking this through,” he added. “I don’t think
they have a clue.”

Source: Cuba tries to figure out political standing in Donald Trump era
| Miami Herald –
www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article118716213.html

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