In a final effort to stall a new U.S. trade and travel crackdown, Cuba pressured its ally Colombia to suggest it might boycott a Latin American security summit called by U.S. officials if President Trump went forward Friday with announcing his new policy targeting the Raul Castro government.
The complicated international power play started to unfold following a national security principals meeting Tuesday, according to congressional and senior government sources.
Colombia began to express misgivings about how Trump’s Cuba announcement in Miami would coincide with the two-day U.S.-led Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America that begins today, also in Miami, and suggested it might just skip out on the conference if Trump didn’t delay his announcement by a week, said an aide to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Rubio, who has spent months quietly helping Trump craft his plans to restrict trade and travel with Cuba, was “appalled” at the news — although he knew the White House wouldn’t succumb to any threats for a delay, his aide said.
Rubio nevertheless counseled the White House to send a message to the government run by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos: the actions were jeopardizing the $450 million “Peace Colombia” initiative that President Obama pushed, but that remains in limbo under Trump. The underlying peace deal was negotiated with the Castro government, which has influence with the Colombian revolutionary guerilla group known as FARC.
“Let me get this right: Santos is coming to us and asking for $400 million to fund his flawed peace plan, but he is threatening to pull out of an event that’s not even about them? It’s about El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras,” the senator told the White House, according to the Rubio aide. A U.S. government official familiar with the flare up confirmed the broad outlines of the situation described by Rubio’s office. Neither spoke on the record out of concern that it would upset either the Colombians or senior White House officials.
An aide to another Miami Republican who’s advising Trump on Cuba policy, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, confirmed that the congressman got wind of the controversy and had his office call Colombia’s embassy to tell the country to stay out of the Cuba matter or face “consequences.”
Rubio, who was informed of the Colombia situation in a call from the White House during the tail end of a Tuesday Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, went a step further. During a conversation that took place on his cellphone from the back of the committee room, Rubio said he would be at a press conference about Cuba on Friday — either with Trump announcing a rollback of Obama’s policies or holding a press conference with Castro-hating exiles from Venezuela and Cuba and with former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe to denounce his successor, Santos.
“You’re going to ruin your Friday either way,” Rubio told the White House official, according to his aide. White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus called later to make it clear to him that the White House had no intention of backing off its Friday announcement.
Rubio’s office did not speak directly to Colombian officials and there’s some suspicion within the Cuban exile community that U.S. government career service staff, who oppose dis-engagement from Cuba, might have exaggerated the degree to which Colombia was serious about not attending the Miami summit.
The behind-the-scenes tension and last-minute multilateral drama underscored the depth of the Cuban government’s fears that Trump will make good on his campaign promise to rollback Obama’s December 2014 decision to thaw relations with Cuba after decades of Cold War-era hostilities. The embargo remains in effect, but Obama loosened regulations and business restrictions to such a degree that more U.S. money has flowed to the island than ever before.
But Trump, Rubio and Diaz-Balart say the level of repression has increased and the Cuban government hasn’t allowed enough financial prosperity to trickle down to the Cuban people. On the campaign trail, Trump promised to negotiate a better deal. But for months, nothing appeared to be happening, leading to doubts that the president would follow through.
Then, after POLITICO and The Miami Herald reported last week that Trump would make his announcement this Friday, business and trade groups that support more commerce with Cuba ratcheted up their lobbying and public pressure campaigns, writing letters and warning of economic troubles and setbacks if Trump sought to alter the terms.
The Cuban government, however, began sending messages through the news media and diplomatic channels that it was ready to negotiate. But Cuban officials claimed that a return to pre-Obama Cuba policies would hurt efforts to combat drug traffickers who have exploited immigrant smuggling routes through the Straits of Florida.
Those twin issues — drug trafficking and immigration — are top concerns of the Trump administration and underpin the call for today’s Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America involving the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The summit was called by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and is co-hosted with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and their Mexican counterparts. Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to make an appearance as well later today.
While the United States is determined to see the summit to go off without a hitch, the Trump White House is more committed to following through on promises to tighten restrictions on Cuba, said a White House spokesperson familiar with the plan.
“Never has there been any consideration of the White House canceling this event based on any international pressure,” said the spokesperson.