Did Donald Trump Violate the Cuba Embargo?
According to Newsweek, Donald Trump’s hotel and casino company illegally paid $68,000 to a consulting firm in Cuba. The objective was to gain a competitive edge in hospitality and tourism in the island nation, should U.S. policy change.
Of course, during this election cycle both presidential candidates have been accused of everything short of destroying the ozone layer and kidnapping the Lindbergh baby. That makes the source and the context more significant when trying to separate fact from fiction.
Newsweek—no supporter of Trump—alleges that in 1998, a company called Seven Arrows Investment and Development received the payment, which would be a violation of the trade embargo against Cuba.
The Hillary Clinton campaign was quick to respond, saying this is part of a pattern of obfuscation in Trump’s business deals. “We already know about his tax returns that he refuses to release, but today we learned about his efforts to do business in Cuba, which appear to violate U.S. law—certainly flout American foreign policy,” Clinton said.
With Florida emerging as a key swing state in the election, the story could have a significant impact on how the state’s large Cuban community chooses to vote.
The Rest of the Story
Trump was not the only American businessman paying attention to Cuba in 1998 and 1999. Back then President Bill Clinton’s administration had announced (according to the Washington Post) a “liberalized interpretation of licensing requirements for Americans visiting Cuba.” Under this new policy, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) would approve approximately 6,000 licenses for individuals and groups to travel to Cuba in the late 1990s.
As a result, a coalition was formed in favor of loosening trade restrictions, which included representatives of the hotel and entertainment industries.
Given these circumstances it’s not surprising that Trump Hotels would want to take a closer look at Cuba, and even hire a consulting firm to help. Many other American firms did the same.
The key is the OFAC license, which Newsweek claims Seven Arrows did not obtain, thus making the payment they received illegal. However, the article does not allege that Trump Hotels was aware of this issue prior to the trip.
What Does Trump Say?
The billionaire businessman’s interest in Cuba was hardly a secret back then. In fact, he contributed an editorial that ran in the Miami Herald back in 1999 that explained his perspective on the situation:
“Several large European investment groups have asked me to take the ‘Trump Magic’ to Cuba. They have ‘begged’ me to form partnerships to build casino-hotels in Havana. With the influx of foreign tourists, we would make a fortune, they promise, and they are no doubt right. They are also right to say that this type of arrangement would allow me to skirt the U.S.-imposed embargo.”
However, he added that doing business in Cuba would put him “directly at odds with the longstanding U. S. policy of isolating Fidel Castro.” He wrote that if the embargo is not continued, “The Bay of Pigs and all the people who died or were injured and those who are living monuments of it will be hurt by this government a second time.”
Thus, he had a choice: “huge profits or human rights. For me, it was a no-brainer.”
Seventeen years later, Trump’s position has not changed. At a Miami rally he promised to reverse President Obama’s Cuba re-engagement policy.
Richard Fields, the head of Seven Arrows, declined to comment for the Newsweek story. Given Trump’s hardline stance against the Castro administration, then and now, it’s possible that Fields may have acted on his own when exploring a Cuba hotel venture. The fact that Trump later sued Fields supports this theory, though Newsweek quoted an “unnamed source” that Trump knew about the Cuba trip.