Biden shifts from Obama on Cuba post-Florida losses
President Biden has taken a U-turn from the Obama administration’s policies on Cuba after Democrats lost two consecutive presidential elections in Florida.
While Biden ended or reversed a number of Trump-era policies upon taking office, including the U.S. exit from the Paris climate deal and the so-called Muslim travel ban, former President Obama’s former vice president has kept in place Trump-era restrictions on Cuba following Obama’s openings to the island nation.
The administration has said it’s reviewing the country’s policy on Cuba and hasn’t publicly ruled out changes. But the retention of Trump’s policies so far also follows deeply disappointing results for Democrats among Latino voters in Florida, where Cuban Americans are a vital voting bloc.
“You have to think that the reason that nothing has been done is because of some consideration about how Cuban Americans are going to take a shift in policy,” said Guillermo Grenier, a professor at Florida International University and one of the lead investigators of the school’s Cuba Poll.
Democrats’ troubles in Florida were put into stark relief in November when Trump carried the state for a second time, helped out by big gains in the Miami area, a traditional Democratic stronghold where roughly 7 in 10 residents are Latino. In 2016, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won Miami-Dade County by nearly 30 percentage points, while Biden carried it last year by less than 8 points.
Trump’s better-than-expected performance in Miami-Dade came down to several factors. For one, he campaigned there for years and embraced Spanish-language outreach efforts. At the same time, Spanish-speaking voters in South Florida found themselves targeted by disinformation campaigns in the lead-up to the 2020 election.
Democrats acknowledge that part of Trump’s success in the Miami area owed to his campaign’s efforts to label Democrats as “socialists” — a particularly painful word for many of Florida’s Latino residents who fled leftist governments in countries such as Cuba and Venezuela.
“You have to ask yourself: what do we get for going back to the pre-Trump approach to Cuba?” one Florida Democratic strategist said. “The answer is nothing. The Cuba issue doesn’t play anywhere in the country but Florida, and here I think it’s a liability to say ‘let’s normalize relations with Cuba.’ ”
“It’s not going to win you any votes, but it will lose you votes,” the strategist added. “I think this is kind of an admission of that.”
Biden vowed on the campaign trail to reverse the Trump administration’s policies on Cuba, arguing that the former president’s hard-line stance had “done nothing to advance democracy and human rights” and had instead made the situation on the island worse.
But since taking office in January, neither Biden nor his administration has signaled a willingness to return to the Obama-era policies of detente. At a briefing in March, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that “a Cuba policy shift is not currently among President Biden’s top priorities.”
In perhaps the clearest sign to date that Biden has no immediate plans to reverse his predecessor’s Cuba policy, the State Department renewed a determination made under the Trump administration that Cuba is “not cooperating fully with United States antiterrorism efforts.”
The State Department said its decision was made after “a review of a country’s overall level of cooperation in our efforts to fight terrorism, taking into account our counterterrorism objectives with that country, and a realistic assessment of its capabilities.”
Nelson Diaz, the chair of the Miami-Dade Republican Party, said that any effort by the Biden administration to reverse Trump’s policies on Cuba would “prove to us that they are communist sympathizers or socialists.” By sticking to the line set by the Trump administration, Diaz said, Biden may be able ease the concerns of at least some Cuban Americans.
“It might assuage some Cuban Democrats into voting for them. It might assuage some of those concerns,” he said. “A lot of Cuban Democrats voted Republican last cycle. If the Biden administration were to take a hard line like the Trump administration did, some of those Cuban Democrats that voted Republican could potentially swing back.”
But, he added: “I don’t see them getting back much of the vote they lost. That’s a tall order.”
Whether Biden and his party can shake their recent disappointments in Florida will be tested next year when Democrats seek to defeat Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in the 2022 midterms.
Democrats are also targeting two Miami-area House districts represented by Cuban American Republicans, who just flipped control of their seats from Democrats last year.
Biden’s reluctance to reverse course on Trump-era policies on Cuba has also put him at odds with members of his own party.
Earlier this year, a group of 75 Democratic lawmakers penned a letter to the president urging him to return to “the Obama-Biden Administration policy of engagement and normalization of relations.” Notably, none of the 10 Democratic members of Florida’s House delegation signed the letter.
John Kavulich, the president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Biden is not racing to continue Obama’s work on U.S.-Cuba relations.
“Joe Biden is not Barack Obama,” he said, adding: “You look at Joseph Biden’s career in the Senate, particularly, and you don’t see a lot of foundation to support that he wants to return everything that Donald Trump did.”
Kavulich said there is nothing remarkable about the fact that Biden is weighing political considerations in his approach to Cuba, arguing that other presidents have done the same thing. Obama, he noted, largely waited until his last term in the White House to aggressively pursue detente with Havana.
“Why is it shocking and considered undesirable if politics play a role in the decision of an elected politician?” Kavulich said. “It’s astounding to me that there can be criticism of the Biden administration for evaluating the domestic political context of something that it’s going to do relating to foreign policy.”
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