- George Bennett Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
A thousand miles from the special counsel and other tumults of Washington, President Donald Trump basked in the adoration of cheering Cuban Americans here Friday as he reversed former President Barack Obama by signing an order to tighten some travel and trade restrictions with communist Cuba.
In a sweltering theater in the city’s Little Havana community, Trump shared a stage with Cuban dissidents, Bay of Pigs veterans and family members of two men killed in 1996 when Cuba’s military shot down a civilian plane belonging to the Brothers to the Rescue group.
The president took the stage at the Manuel Artime theater — named for a leader of the aborted 1961 Bay of Pigs raid — to chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” His remarks were interrupted occasionally by shouts of “Thank you” and “U.S.A!” and at least one “I love you.”
Obama used his executive powers to re-establish an embassy in Havana and allow individual travel to the communist island. Obama also abolished the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allowed immigrants who escaped Cuba and were able to reach dry land in the U.S. to remain in the country and seek citizenship.
Trump is keeping the embassy in Havana and is not reinstating “wet foot, dry foot.” But his order requires tourists to be part of organized groups and it forbids commerce with hotels and other businesses linked to the Cuban military’s economic arm.
Trump said Obama’s policy helped Cuba’s Castro regime rather than ordinary Cuban citizens.
“It’s hard to think of a policy that makes less sense than the prior administration’s terrible and misguided deal with the Castro regime,” Trump said.
“The previous administration’s easing of restrictions on travel and trade does not help the Cuban people. They only enrich the Cuban regime,” Trump said.
“We will work for the day when a new generation of leaders brings this long reign of suffering to an end,” Trump said. “And I do believe that end is within the very near future.”
Trump was joined by Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Sen. Marco Rubio, U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and three Cabinet members: Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
Rubio, one of those advising the Trump administration on the changes, contrasted Trump’s visit with Obama’s 2016 trip to Havana.
“A year and a half ago a president, an American president, landed in Havana and outstretched his hand to a regime. Today, a new president lands in Miami to reach out his hand to the people of Cuba,” Rubio said.
“You mark my words,” Rubio continued. “Whether it’s in six months or six years, Cuba will be free…and when it is, I believe that the people on the island and history will say that perhaps the key moment in that transition began on this day here in this theater with each of you and with a president who was willing to do what needed to be done so that freedom and liberty returns to the enslaved island of Cuba.”
As a 2016 candidate, Trump gradually adopted a hard-line stance on Cuba that pleased many of the older, conservative Cuban exiles in Miami. The Brigade 2506 group of Bay of Pigs veterans endorsed Trump in October — a backing he often mentions as a key to his narrow victory in Florida.
“There isn’t a single time that I have spoken to the president about Cuba that he hasn’t mentioned the brigade,” Rubio said before Trump appeared.
Trump was true to form in his remarks.
“I have wonderful memories from our visit during the campaign,” Trump said Friday of his Oct. 25 trip to the Brigade 2506 Museum in Little Havana. “That was some visit. That was right before the election. I guess it worked, right?”
Later, Trump added: “Last year I promised to be a voice against repression in our region…and a voice for the freedom of the Cuban people. You heard that pledge. You exercised the right you have to vote. You went out and you voted. And here I am.”
Reliving the 2016 election wasn’t the only politics Trump discussed Friday.
Seeing Scott on stage, he called the Florida governor “my good friend” and said, “He’s doing a great job. Oh, I hope he runs for the Senate. I know I’m not supposed to say that. I hope he runs for the Senate. Rick, are you running?”
Scott, who is widely expected to run against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson next year, smiled at the president.