The battle of two Cubas
Expanding his criticism of President Trump’s foreign policy record, Joe Biden has set his sights on a topic that resurfaces every election season: Cuba.
Biden has promised that as president he would reinstate Obama-era relations between Washington and Havana. Recently, he admonished Trump for allowing Cuba to pursue a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, a statement that yielded some head scratching given that the country was a member of the Council during Obama’s presidency.
Biden’s enlistment of Cuba to denigrate Trump additionally thrusts Florida’s Cuban American voters onto the campaign radar. For any pronouncement on Cuba has political implications for its diaspora. Cuba and its exile counterpart are unique in that they are interlinked subjects, concurrently an international and domestic matter, with Florida’s coveted electors at stake.
For his part, Trump has used Cuba to steer multiple objectives. Rolling back Obama’s steps towards normalization has been part of the broader project of undoing his predecessor’s achievements. Trump also has ratcheted up his vilification of socialism to Cold War proportions. The return to Reagan-era language serves a dual purpose. On the one hand it has allowed Trump to thwart the progressive momentum of democratic socialism led by Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D). On the other, playing the socialist card has kept Trump moored to Florida’s Cuban American community, which solidly backed him in the 2016 election. His administration further inveigled this constituency in attempting to oust Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, an endeavor couched as another blow to Venezuela’s longtime ally Cuba.
Such rhetoric seeks to endear Cuban Floridians to Trump and help him win reelection in November. But this election may witness a political reshuffling among this collective.
Two-thirds of the 2.3 million people who identify as Cuban in the United States live in Florida. Nearly 60 percent of this group was born in Cuba and of those foreign born, approximately two-thirds are U.S. citizens.
For the most part, the Republican Party has been able to depend on Florida’s Cuban Americans. But in the last decade, the tide of shifting perspectives appears to be growing. In 2012, 48 percent of this bloc backed Democratic candidate Barack Obama in a notable deviation from prior elections. At that time, more Cuban Americans were cheering for normalization. There was an increase in returnees to Cuba, particularly among older Cubans after then President Raúl Castro allowed emigrants to apply for repatriation. When Presidents Obama and Castro shook hands in Havana in 2016, it seemed like full restoration of ties between countries could be around the corner. Embassies reopened and Obama ended the Wet Foot, Dry Foot policy.
In 2016, however, Trump’s team was able to restock the conservative wing of this conglomerate. Yet in the time since, fissures have appeared. The administration’s crackdown on immigration has included the removal of Cuban nationals from the United States, which goes against the decades-old practice of granting asylum to Cuban refugees and fast-tracking them to permanent residency. Half of Cuban Americans between the ages of 18 and 44 disapprove of President Trump, and those in Florida are now tending to lean Democrat or Independent. If they vote in larger numbers, Trump’s hold on the community may be tenuous.
But unlike other ethnic groups, young Cuban Americans are a minority of this demographic. With an average age of 40, Cuban Americans are uniquely older among Latinos, who across the board average 29 years of age.
In the 2018 midterm elections, even as they squeaked by in their victories, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Sen. Rick Scott (R) enjoyed sizable support from Cuban Americans, an indication that these voters could steadily remain Republican in 2020. However, unknown is how Trump’s handling of the coronavirus will play out in the election and if Cuban Americans will follow the direction of other voters on this front.
Truly remarkable has been the power of this community to continue to shape U.S.-Cuban relations so many years after the end of the Cold War. The embargo remains in place despite its lack of popularity among most Americans and the world. For the last 28 years, the United Nations has voted to approve a resolution calling for the end of the U.S. embargo. Yet Congress keeps it in place and presidents have loathed to fully back its abolition.
Biden has his work cut out for him if he wants to win Cuban Americans in Florida. He will have to convince younger voters that a return to the path of normalization will benefit them and the state of Florida more generally. He will have to halt the removal of Cubans and allow them to cross the border unfettered, in line with standard practices in place since John F. Kennedy. He will also have to separate the Venezuela crisis from U.S. relations with Cuba.
Whatever the result, it is noteworthy and perplexing that Cold War politics can still direct domestic and international affairs across the Florida Straits, with Cubans and their American counterparts still fighting in the chasm between reconciliation and division.
John A. Gronbeck-Tedesco is an associate professor of American Studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He is author of “Cuba, the United States, and Cultures of the Transnational Left.” Follow him on Twitter @Professor_G_T.