No presidential candidate wants reports about violating a trade embargo to surface weeks before an election, but for Donald Trump, Newsweek’s investigation into his efforts to explore building a casino in Cuba could be devastating in a community whose support he badly needs: Miami’s Little Havana.
That’s the center of Florida’s Cuban-American vote, and home to tens of thousands of elderly exiles from the days of the Cuban Revolution who loyally vote Republican, but might see Trump’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering as a deal-breaker.
“It is never a good thing when voters who consider the Cuba issue practically sacred find out they have been played and taken for fools by a lying, hypocritical candidate,” said Ana Navarro, a GOP consultant from Miami and a prominent “Never Trumper.”
Newsweek’s 2,000-word story, published Thursday, is getting a lot of traction in Miami, leading the Miami Herald’s English and Spanish-language sites on Thursday morning and getting strong play on TV and radio.
The article describes how Trump sent out feelers in 1998 to investigate the feasibility of building a casino in Cuba if then-President Bill Clinton lifted the decades-old trade embargo. According to the article, Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts paid a consulting firm roughly $69,000 to travel to Cuba on Trump’s behalf.
At the time, such a commercial trip would have violated U.S. law, which prohibited businesses from spending money in Cuba. Trump’s hotel company paid Seven Arrows Investment and Development Corporation to scout out possibilities there, according to Newsweek, and its representatives made the trip and met with government officials, bankers and business leaders. Cuba was then still on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a designation that did not end until last year, when President Barack Obama restored diplomatic relations with the island.
Newsweek reported that Trump did not respond to requests for comment about the story. His campaign similarly ignored requests for comment by The Huffington Post.
Thanks to his disparaging remarks about Mexicans and immigration, Trump already polls poorly among Latinos. But his support from Florida Hispanics ― who made up 17 percent of the state’s voters in the 2012 general election ― has been higher thanks to Cuban-Americans.
A recent poll showed that Trump leads Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton 43-36 percent among Cuban-Americans in Florida, with support coming disproportionately from older voters ― the first and second generations of exiles.
In 2012, Obama won Florida by only 74,000 votes out of 8.4 million, and polls are showing a close race in the state yet again.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who competed against Trump for the GOP presidential nomination and now backs him, called the story’s allegations “very serious and troubling” in a statement.
“I will reserve judgment until we know all the facts and Donald has been given the opportunity to respond,” said Rubio, who is now seeking re-election to his Senate seat.
Some pro-embargo Cuban-Americans do not believe that the Newsweek revelations are particularly damaging. Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, defended Trump, noting that the real estate mogul ultimately decided against working with the Cuban government to build a casino. “Trump concluded that those who seek to do business with the Castro regime were mistaken,” he wrote on his website.
A few months after his consultant went to Cuba, Trump announced he was running for president as a candidate of the Reform Party. In a speech in Miami in 1999, he advocated retaining the embargo but did not mention his research into opening a casino on the island.
Trump can’t afford to lose even a fraction of Cuban-American voters. Ana Navarro, GOP consultant from Miami
Seventeen years later, Trump is again hoping to win over pro-embargo Cuban-Americans. In a rally in Miami earlier this month, he said he would not end trade sanctions until Cuba met his conditions. “Those demands will include religious and political freedom for the Cuban people, and the freeing of political prisoners,” he said.
And in a Little Havana appearance on Tuesday, Trump told his Cuban-American audience: “I have so many friends from Cuba and they are just so unhappy not at a deal being made, but they want the right deal being made. We will make the right deal, believe me.”
Navarro believes many Cuban-Americans will give Trump a pass, despite the Newsweek article. “I think a lot will still vote for Trump,” she said. “But some will peel off. Trump can’t afford to lose even a fraction of Cuban-American voters.”