Donald Trump has been hit with a pre-October surprise, one that has the potential of harming his outreach to the anti-Castro Cuban-American community, which strongly opposed any lifting of the U.S. embargo on Cuba.
Just a few days ago, Trump sought the support of this community, strongly embracing tough measures against Castro. And two weeks earlier, speaking in Florida, Trump promised to reverse Obama’s new policy towards Cuba:
[A]ll 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. Those demands will include religious and political freedom for the Cuban people and the freeing of political prisoners.
But the cover story in Newsweek written by Kurt Eichenwald reveals that Trump’s business interests stood above his promises to the anti-Castro Cubans in Miami:
[A Trump business] secretly conducted business in Communist Cuba during Fidel Castro’s presidency despite strict American trade bans that made such undertakings illegal, according to interviews with former Trump executives, internal company records and court filings.
The Daily Beast provides a summary of Newsweek’s findings:
Donald Trump’s company officials secretly explored business opportunities in Cuba during the U.S. embargo against the communist island-nation, according to Newsweek report. An article by reporter Kurt Eichenwald posted early Thursday, citing documents he obtained, says Trump employees visited Havana during Fidel Castro’s presidency and, despite the clear violation of federal law, spent at least $68,000 in the country in 1998 without U.S. government permission. Eichenwald’s report is based on court filings, company records, and interviews with former Trump executives. According to Eichenwald, the company funneled the money to Cuba through a U.S. consulting firm — with Trump’s knowledge — in order to make the trip’s spending appear legal.
U.S. law at the time made any spending of even one penny in Cuba by U.S. corporations illegal without U.S. government approval.
Trump’s actions came at the very time he launched his first bid for the White House, when he sought the nomination of the Reform Party. Indeed, on the very first day of that campaign, he talked to Cuban-Americans in Miami, and as Eichenwald puts it:
[Trump] vowed to maintain the embargo and never spend his or his companies’ money in Cuba until Fidel Castro was removed from power.
Trump Hotels had already reimbursed its consultants for the money they spent on the secret trip to Cuba, which Trump had approved. That trip was in violation of U.S. federal law. A former Trump executive told Newsweek that Trump’s company did not obtain a government license for the trip, which took place to have his representatives see the opportunities for opening a new Trump casino in Cuba. The purpose of the trip, this executive said:
… was to give Trump’s company a foothold should Washington loosen or lift the trade restrictions.
Trump’s officials met with government officials, bankers, and Cuban business leaders to see what the possibilities were. The trip, had it been revealed at the time, could have led to a referral to the Department of Justice for prosecution against the Trump business.
How hypocritical was Trump? He told Cuban-Americans this just as these secret negotiations had taken place:
[P]utting money and investing money in Cuba right now doesn’t go to the people of Cuba. It goes to Fidel Castro. He’s a murderer. He’a a killer. He’s a bad guy in every respect, and frankly, the embargo must stand for no other reason than, it it does stand, he will come down.
Was it a simple case of profits over principle? Trump Hotels was struggling and its stock price had collapsed; perhaps Cuba seemed a worthwhile risk.
Trump and his companies will now face no legal problems, since the statute of limitations ran out long ago. Eichenwald concludes:
[P]erhaps that was the calculation behind the company’s decision to flout the law; the low risk of getting caught versus the high reward of lining up Cuban allies if the U.S. loosened or dropped the embargo. The only catch: What would happen if Trump’s Cuban-American supporters ever found out?
Trump proves how prescient Lenin was when he wrote the famous words about how “the capitalists will sell us the rope with which we’ll hang them.”
These new revelations come after a mid-July story that appeared in Bloomberg Business Week, which revealed that in late 2015, Trump executives traveled to Cuba to explore opportunities for building new golf courses on the island. Trump himself told CNN that he would like to open a hotel there “when we’re allowed to do it.” Cuba, he said, “would be a good opportunity [but] I think the timing is not right.”
Yet in 2012 and 2013, a Trump executive in charge of strategic development, Larry Glick, traveled to Cuba with Edward Russo, a consultant to Trump on golf, to explore the potential for creating Trump golf courses on the island. Of course, Russo explained that he took these trips simply to “go bird-watching” and check out some habitats.
The Bloomberg piece notes that while getting approval to invest with Cuba in new hotels is now legal, golf courses can be construed as an effort to promote tourism, which is still “unlawful under existing sanctions.” As for U.S. policy, Trump told the publication he favored Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba — although of course he would try to get better deals.
Which is it? Is Trump for the embargo and the tough policy he promised Cuban-Americans in Miami? Or is he for trade with and investment in hotels and golf courses despite the existence of a repressive regime still run by the Castros?
Trump defenders will undoubtedly rationalize his actions as more proof of how “smart” he is. They likely will not acknowledge the contradictions between Trump’s actual behavior and his promises.