MIAMI — In an old theater named after a Bay of Pigs invasion veteran, President Donald Trump returned Friday to the heart of his Republican base in Miami’s Little Havana community and pledged to return U.S. policy to a hardline on the Castro government.
Trump’s six-point, eight-page presidential policy directive, which POLITICO obtained an early version of on Thursday, would tighten restrictions on tourist travel to Cuba — technically illegal already — and reinforces the 56-year-old trade embargo with the island, primarily by instituting a broad prohibition on financial transactions with companies significantly controlled by the Communist government’s military holding company.
“This is an amazing community. The Cuban-American community has so much love … What you built here, a vibrant culture, a thriving neighborhood. The spirit of adventure is a testament to what a free Cuba could be. And with God’s help, a free Cuba is what we will soon achieve,” Trump said to applause at the Manuel Artime Theater during a speech in which he name-dropped exile leaders in Miami and democracy activists in Cuba. The theater bears the name of a famous leader of the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion intended to overthrow Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
But in pulling back from Obama’s deal with Cuba, Trump’s policies are bound to be unpopular. Nearly every public opinion poll taken of Floridians, Americans at-large or Cuban-Americans specifically show that the former president’s normalization efforts were popular.
There is one group, however, that’s an outlier: Cuban-American Republicans who favor a harder line on Cuba. And for a Republican politician running statewide, as Trump is expected to do in 2020, that’s where the votes are, said U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican Cuban-American from West Miami and exile community leader.
“We keep hearing about all the polling numbers on engagement, so why don’t we get more pro-engagement candidates elected in the Cuban American community? I’ll tell you the answer: all the intensity in the Cuban-American community over the issue is on the side of those who know that the way to deal with a tyranny is to realize it’s a tyranny,” Rubio told POLITICO.
Rubio significantly shaped President Obama’s Cuba policy with another Republican Miami Cuban-American, U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, and says that in all the conversations with Trump about Cuba and Castro, the president “never asked about the politics of it.” Both accompanied Trump on Air Force One for Friday’s flight to Miami.
Instead, Rubio and others say, Trump repeatedly talked about his need to keep his promise to a group of Miami Bay of Pigs veterans, Brigade 2506, who survived the disastrous 1961 invasion of Cuba where the U.S. government refused to honor its commitment to help them topple Castro.
Last fall, for the first time in the group’s 50-plus year history, it endorsed a presidential candidate, an act of support that Trump was grateful for in the final week of the campaign when it looked as if he’d lose the race and Florida.
Trump scored a surprise victory in must-win Florida, which he carried by just 1.2 percentage points, a margin of 112,911 votes. In Miami-Dade, the most-populous county, Trump was crushed by Hillary Clinton by nearly 30 points, or more than 290,000 votes. Still, he received almost 334,000 votes in the county, nearly all from Cuban-American Republicans, who account for 72 percent of the GOP rolls in Miami-Dade.
“Without the Cubans, Trump would have lost Florida,” said Modesto Castener, a 75-year-old Bay of Pigs veteran who attended Friday’s announcement by Trump.
Though he likes the policy, Castener said he was attending for a simpler reason: “I’m here to support the president. He promised. Everything he has promised he has tried to accomplish.”
While Friday’s group was among the most loyal of Trump voters, there was still quiet unease. Rather than boast about his Cuba policy on Twitter, Trump instead spent Friday morning tweeting about allegations of Russia collusion, which he denied, and the investigation he faces.
“Cuba Policy Day!” a Republican Miami Cuban-American told POLITICO, bemoaning Trump’s lack of message discipline in his tweets. “CNN had one question about Cuba policy. The rest was about Russia. Trump. Tweets.”
Before introducing Trump, Rubio and Diaz-Balart dramatically focused on Trump’s commitment to Brigade 2506. Diaz-Balart said the veterans were “betrayed” while they stayed loyal. Now Trump, he said, was keeping his promise to the veterans and his commitment to pressure the Castro government. He contrasted Trump with Obama, who traveled to Cuba, pushed a policy that brought no democracy to the island and even went to a baseball game with Raúl Castro.
“You will never see this president doing the wave with a ruthless dictator at a baseball game,” Diaz-Balart said.
In a notable snub, outgoing U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen — a vocal Castro critic who dislikes Trump — was the only Miami Republican member of Congress to not attend Friday’s announcement.
Trump, amplifying on lines from his directive, symbolically addressed Havana.
"To the Cuban government, I say put an end to the abuse of dissidents. Release the political prisoners. Stop jailing innocent people. Open yourselves to political and economic freedoms. Return the fugitives from American justice, including the return of the cop killer Joanne Chesimard," Trump said before mentioning an issue closer to home for the Miami crowd.
"And finally hand over the Cuban military criminals who shot down and killed four race members of Brothers to the Rescue who were in unarmed, small slow civilian planes," Trump said to another round of applause.
Though Trump is rolling back Obama’s policy of engagement, he’s not completely scuttling every deal made with the communist country. He’s keeping open the U.S. embassy in Havana and will not restart the “wet foot/dry foot” policy that Obama ended in January before leaving office. The longstanding policy allowed undocumented Cuban migrants who reached dry land to stay in the U.S. as legal residents.
Critics, however, predict Trump’s policy will be like the decades-long U.S. embargo against Cuba: a failure. Fidel Castro, who was in power since 1959, died after the November elections. His brother, Raúl Castro, still runs the country.
James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, which supports lifting the U.S. embargo and erasing travel restrictions, said Trump’s new policy will hurt Cuban entrepreneurs and “undoubtedly stifle” travel by Americans to the communist island nation.
"If the goal is to help Cuban entrepreneurs, adding job-killing regulations on U.S. businesses and increasing government resources to investigate everyday Americans traveling to our island neighbor is not the answer,” he said in a statement.
For Democrats, Trump’s decision to appeal to his base is more a sign of weakness than strength. Trump’s national Gallup poll numbers show that only 37 percent approve of the way he’s handling his job as president, while 58 percent disapprove. Those numbers are the inverse of Obama’s at this point relative to his presidency, when 61 percent approved and 31 percent disapproved.
“At a certain point, these numbers will be baked in heading into the midterms,” said Steve Schale, a top Florida Democratic consultant. “The Cuban-American Republican base is shrinking and Miami is growing more and more Democratic every election “If Trump wants to spend his time intensifying support in a dwindling base, that’s fine.”
But none of that mattered to the crowd who greeted Trump with chants of "USA, USA, USA" and applause when he said he was canceling the “misguided” and “terrible” deal Obama made.
“Last year, I promised to be a voice against repression … and a voice for the Cuban people,” Trump said. “You heard that pledge. You exercised the right you have to vote. You went out and you voted. And here I am.”
Read the White House Fact Sheet on President Donald Trump’s Cuba policy here.
UPDATED with more quotes from Trump’s speech.