A secretive White House meeting on Cuba last week revealed that President Obama is mulling a visit the island nation next year, and also discussed the controversial idea of the Cuban government opening consular offices in Miami.
After hailing embassy openings in Washington and Havana last week, the White House held an off-schedule, private meeting on Wednesday with U.S. officials involved in the administration's Cuba policy. Nearly 80 activist members of the Cuban-American community from Florida and across the United States — mostly Democrats — were also there.
Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama's closest advisers, was on hand, along with White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of State for the western hemisphere.
The White House Monday at first declined to talk about the meeting, and referred questions about it to the State Department. A State Department spokesman then referred the same questions to the Cuban embassy, which was already closed for the day.
On Tuesday, a White House official told the Washington Examiner that the briefing took place as part of the administration's ongoing efforts to reach out and engage the Cuban-American community on the president's efforts to normalize relations with the island nation.
"The president has been very clear that he supports measures to improve travel and commerce and further increase people-to-people contact, support civil society in Cuba, support the growth of Cuba's nascent private sector and enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people," the White House official said. "The president has also called on Congress to begin the work of ending the embargo."
On Obama's plans to travel to Cuba, the official said there are no announcements.
But according to sources familiar with the meeting, Rhodes told the group that President Obama is considering visiting the island nation next year, and will make an assessment early next year depending on progress in U.S.-Cuba relations.
While that historic visit would likely help Obama cement his legacy as the president who started to open up bilateral relations, it could be marred by or even delayed by Cuba's arrest of dissidents. Those arrests have continued despite Obama's gestures to Cuba, and could put Obama at risk of appearing to be too friendly with a country that often arrests members of political or religious groups dozens at a time.
Eduardo Jose Padron, the current president of Miami-Dade College who came to the U.S. as a refugee at the age of 15, used the White House meeting to ask about the state of human rights in Cuba, and State Department officials acknowledged that it is a dangerous time for dissidents on the island, one participant told the Examiner.
Andy Gomez, a retired assistant provost and dean of the University of Miami's School of International Studies, said that so far, the Castro regime doesn't appear to be changing its ways. Gomez previously served on the Brookings Institution's Cuba Task Force from 2008 to 2010, and told the Washington Examiner Cuba needs to demonstrate a stronger commitment to human rights before Obama travels there or the U.S. agrees to allow it to open a consulate in Florida.
"Up until now, the Cuban government hasn't even brought Cuban coffee to the table … I don't see any signs of the Cuban government loosening up their control," he said.
Pope Francis's visit to Cuba, scheduled for later in September, he said, would be a good time for the Cuban government to release more political prisoners and demonstrate a true commitment to improving relations.
The idea of a consular office of the Cuban government in Florida is one that is already stirring debate among Cuban-Americans. During a question-and-answer session in the White House meeting, one participant asked about the chances for opening a Cuban consulate in Miami, according to a source who was there.
The White House responded that it was up to the Cuban government to decide when and where it would open the consulate.
But that response has only spurred more questions and concerns since the meeting, some of which deal with how it might hurt Hillary Clinton's White House bid. The opening of an outpost in the heavily anti-Castro area of Miami could further anger Florida's politically powerful Cuban-American community and create a backlash for Democrats that could hurt Clinton's Florida presidential campaign operations.
"The consulate in Miami would create a bittersweet taste in the Cuban-American community, including those supporting these [normalization] changes," said Gomez. "It would also hurt any chances of Hillary Clinton making inroads and gaining support among Miami's Cuban-Americans."
"I don't think President Obama would do that to Hillary Clinton," he added, noting that he believes a better place for the consulate would be in Tampa or Key West.
Ever since Obama's December announcement to try to normalize relations with Cuba, South Florida's major cities have fiercely debated the opening of a consulate, which would provide passport and visas services and emergency aide to visiting Cuban citizens, as well as other resources.
Officials have strongly objected to such an outpost in Miami-Dade County, home to nearly a million Cubans, the largest concentration in the world next to Havana.
But city leadership in Tampa, which has roughly 80,000 Cuban-Americans, is embracing the idea, viewing it as an economic opportunity for the city.
While recent polls have documented a generational shift in Cuban-American feelings about the Obama's administration's decision to re-engage with the Castro government, the political leadership in Miami is still heavily anti-Castro, dominated by descendants of those who fled the 1959 communist revolution regime, and some who had their property taken by Castro.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who vehemently opposes Obama's decision to restore ties, is strongly against a consulate in Miami. Two other Florida GOP congressmen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo, also are opposed, along with Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado.
Ros-Lehtinen said opening a consulate in Miami is another Obama administration effort to "legitimize an illegitimate regime."
"Placing a Cuban consulate in Miami is nothing but an insult to so many who have been arrested, imprisoned, maimed, and tortured by the Castros and their ruthless thugs," she told the Examiner. "This administration has done nothing but give dictators concession after concession yet what do we have to show for it? More arrests of pro-democracy activists in Cuba, a continued harboring of fugitives from American justice, and total disrespect for the suffering of victims of autocratic despots."
Ros-Lehtinen also argues that any Cuban consulate would serve as a headquarters for espionage.
But others argue that South Florida Cuban-Americans are in real need of consular services and don't view the opening as a serious problem.
"I would hope that it would make things easier for those traveling back home, about 400,000 are traveling back to Cuba a year," said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. "Right now, it's very expensive and cumbersome to apply for a visa and make all kinds of travel arrangements."
This story was corrected to say the White House meeting took place Wednesday, not Thursday, and clarified to say that the White House is considering a trip to Cuba next year and will assess those plans early next year based on the status of U.S.-Cuban relations.