EXCLUSIVE: Trump officials considered ‘ultimatum’ to Cuba

The Trump administration considered severing diplomatic relations with Cuba before deciding on narrower changes to former President Barack Obama’s policy, according to documents obtained exclusively by The Hill. 

During a high-level National Security Council (NSC) meeting last month, officials weighed the possibility of issuing an “all or nothing” ultimatum to the Cuban government to improve its human-rights situation. 

If the changes were not adopted by a set deadline, the U.S. would revert to its Cold War-era Cuba policy, wiping out Obama’s historic rapprochement with the Communist nation.  

{mosads}The step would have entailed sweeping measures, such as cutting off formal diplomatic relations, shuttering the U.S. Embassy in Havana and “stopping all bilateral engagement,” according to an NSC memo that was circulated to senior decisionmakers at key Cabinet agencies in advance of a decision on the policy change. 

The U.S. also would have reinstated trade and travel restrictions on Cuba and may have set in motion a process to reclassify the island as a state sponsor of terrorism. 

Another option listed in the memo was reinstating the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allowed any Cubans who arrive on American soil to remain and seek permanent residency. But that possibility was never seriously discussed, according to a source familiar with the conversations.  

U.S. law enforcement officials strongly objected to such a change out of concern it could spark a wave of Cuban migration, the source said. 

It’s not clear if the recommendation to completely reverse Obama’s policy ever reached President Trump’s desk.  

“Consistent with the president’s wishes, various options are prepared for him and he selects the one he considers to be in the best interests of the American people,” a White House spokesperson said. 

Ultimately, the White House settled on a more moderate approach.

That option, which was also laid out in the memo, allows Trump to fulfill a campaign promise he made to conservative Cuban-American voters and members of Congress while stopping short of closing off all business and diplomatic ties with Cuba that were established under Obama’s 2014 policy.  

Trump traveled to Miami on Friday to announce his new directive, which would clamp down on travel and commercial links that were opened under Obama in an effort to extract changes from the Cuban government on human rights. 

The administration is imposing stricter rules on American visitors to Cuba and a ban on financial transactions with companies owned by the Cuban military, which controls large swaths of the country’s tourism and travel industries.   

“I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” Trump said.  

“The previous administration’s easing of restrictions on travel and trade does not help the Cuban people,” he continued. “They only enrich the Cuban regime.” 

But the changes leave the cornerstones of Obama’s policy in place; it maintains formal diplomatic relations with Cuba and does not restore the “wet foot, dry foot” policy.  

It’s not surprising that the Trump administration would consider a wide range of options before setting is Cuba policy. White Houses typically do so at the staff level before making a recommendation to the president. 

But the memo sheds new light on the Trump administration’s decisionmaking process when it comes to Cuba — and the road that was not taken. 

Trump said repeatedly during his 2016 campaign he was willing to roll back the opening with Cuba. He drove home the point in South Florida, where an influential group of anti-Castro Cuban-Americans are a key Republican voting bloc. Trump won Florida in the general election.

“We will cancel Obama’s one-sided Cuban deal made by executive order if we do not get the deal we want, and the deal that people living in Cuba and here deserve,” Trump said in a speech in Miami just before Election Day. 

The NSC memo obtained by The Hill stated that reverting back to the pre-2014 policy on Cuba would have shown “a strong commitment to human rights and democracy” and pleased anti-Castro “interest groups,” but would have also come with a number of risks. 

“Global adversaries, such as Iran, Russia and China, would likely develop an even stronger footing in Cuba” if ties with the island were severed, the NSC document says.  

The memo warned that cutting off relations would have eliminated economic and political leverage over Cuba to extract reforms, damaged U.S. objectives in Latin America, hurt U.S. businesses that invested in Cuba and jeopardized collaboration with Cuban authorities on national security issues, including fugitives and migration. 

Rolling back parts of the Cuba policy instead would deliver on Trump’s commitments while retaining leverage over Cuba, the memo said. Such an approach would also be “less likely to elicit pushback” from the business community and regional partners, the memo stated, although some opposition was expected.  

“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle 100 percent,” a senior White House official told reporters on Thursday. “It’s not that he’s opposed to any deal with Cuba; he’s opposed to a bad deal with Cuba.”

Supporters of Obama’s policy say the changes Trump did approve could still hurt burgeoning collaboration between U.S. and Cuban law enforcement agencies on a variety of security and migration issues.  

Since “wet foot, dry foot” ended, the flow of Cuban migrants to American shores has slowed to a trickle and Cubans entering the U.S. illegally can be sent back to their home country. 

Trump’s policy changes do not directly affect those areas. But some U.S. officials have privately expressed concern it could have a chilling effect on cooperation with Cuban authorities.

Law enforcement agencies have secured concessions from Cuba to accept the return of Cuban nationals with criminal convictions, something Havana did not allow under the previous rules. 

Cuban officials have also warned that changes to the U.S. relationship could lead them to curtail information sharing on drug trafficking and cyber crime. 

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