Courtesy The Guardian

The Clinton campaign on Thursday attacked Donald Trump over reports of an historic violation of the Cuba embargo, hours after Newsweek alleged that the Republican nominee spent at least $68,000 in the island dictatorship in 1998, while investigating potential business opportunities.

Citing “interviews with former Trump executives, internal company records and court filings”, Newsweek reported that in 1998 a company controlled by Trump “secretly conducted business in communist Cuba during Fidel Castro’s presidency despite strict American trade bans that made such undertakings illegal”.

The expenditure, Newsweek said, was indirect, involving the payment of expenses incurred on a visit by consultants from a US firm.

On Thursday, Jake Sullivan, a senior policy adviser to the Clinton campaign, said in a statement: “Trump’s business with Cuba appears to have broken the law, flouted US foreign policy and is in complete contradiction to Trump’s own repeated, public statements that he had been offered opportunities to invest in Cuba but passed them up.

“This latest report shows once again that Trump will always put his own business interest ahead of the national interest – and has no trouble lying about it.”

At the time of the expenditure in question, the spending of any US corporate money in Cuba was illegal without the explicit approval of the federal government.

The Trump campaign did not immediately issue a statement, but in a television interview with The View, campaign manager Kellyanne Conway seemed to acknowledge that Trump had indeed spent money in Cuba.

“It starts out with a screaming headline, as it usually does, that he did business in Cuba,” she said. “And it turns out that he decided not to invest there. They paid money, as I understand, in 1998.

“I know we’re not supposed to talk about years ago when it comes to the Clintons, but with Trump there is no statute of limitations.”

Trump, who was due to stage a campaign rally in Bedford, New Hampshire, on Thursday, has taken contradictory positions on US policy towards Cuba.

In 1999, when first exploring a presidential campaign as a third-party candidate, he took a hard line.

In a Wall Street Journal editorial headlined America Needs a President Like Mehe wrote: I would also immediately reverse the move to normalize relations with the most abnormal political figure in our hemisphere: Fidel Castro.

“We have pushed him to the precipice with our embargo, helped of course by the withdrawal of Soviet backing.

“Now comes a movement, backed by state department bureaucrats, to rescue Mr Castro with US dollars. The striped-pants set won’t like hearing this, but normalization is pure lunacy.”

Moves towards normalisation of relations were eventually announced in December 2014, by the Obama administration. Nine months later, the US embassy in Havana was formally reopened by secretary of state John Kerry. Barack Obama visited the country in March this year.

This week, Obama nominated Jeffrey DeLaurentis to become the first US ambassador to Cuba in more than half a century.

In a 2015 interview with Jamie Weinstein of the Daily Caller, Trump said of the Obama administration’s policy: “I think it’s fine. I think it’s fine, but we should have made a better deal.

“The concept of opening with Cuba – 50 years is enough – the concept of opening with Cuba is fine. I think we should have made a stronger deal.”

In recent days, the Republican nominee has taken a far harder line. At an event in Miami on 16 September, he pledged: “All the concessions that Obama has granted the Castro regime were done through executive order, which means the next president can reverse them – and that I will do unless the Castro regime meets our demands.

“Not my demands. Our demands.”

Cuba policy has long been something of a political third rail, thanks to the presence in Florida, a key swing state, of a strong Cuban-American émigré community. Most presidential campaigns have therefore pursued a hard line towards the government of Fidel and Raúl Castro.