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It’s time for Biden’s Cuba

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Among the final jabs by the outgoing Trump administration was the decision by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to re-list Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

A charge to further nullify former President Obama’s foreign policy achievements, the move ensured that Trump and his loyal secretary stayed tethered to their Cuban American base, which supported Trump’s reelection by a large margin. Perhaps a signal of what Pompeo’s own 2024 presidential election bid might look like, the decision effectively shackled President Biden’s options in Cuba during his first 100 days.

Biden has suggested that he will rebuild a path to U.S.-Cuban normalization, which would revisit rules regarding remittances, travel and tourism. To do so, Biden will need to rethink his playbook and break with his Democratic predecessors and their decades of trying — and failing — to court the Cuban American vote in Florida. There was the election of 1988 in which George H. W. Bush earned a staggering 85 percent of this constituency over Gov. Michael Dukakis (Mass.). Bill Clinton garnered hope for the party in 1996 with higher numbers and in 2012 Obama came quite close to winning this bloc but in the end only mustered 48 percent of their backing.

No strategy has produced the blue tide strategists have long desired. Trump’s turn to “Cold War 2.0” and its attendant cries of socialism targeted the familiar enemies of Venezuela and Cuba. His muscular anti-communism resonated with an exile community in South Florida still faithful to that identity.

Conventional thinking has been that Democrats need to embrace a similar hawkish approach towards Havana in order to court this contingent. Indeed, a recent poll by Florida International University reveals that this population remains unmoved on this topic, even among those recently arrived. A full 76 percent of those crossing the Florida Straits between 2010 and 2015 have sided with the Grand Old Party (GOP). They still favor the economic embargo, though they agree that it has not achieved its intended objectives, and they reject any path to normalization without substantive changes in the Cuban government. But the majority of this collective continues to voice support for diplomatic relations between countries.

The problem with this approach is that it assumes U.S.-Cuban politics is the primary issue for these voters. The result is a failure to see the complexity of this electorate today. The FIU poll also disclosed that respondents heralded Trump’s anti-immigration stance, courting of religious evangelicals and his tough handling of China. In short, Cuban Americans are faithful to the right for a range of reasons beyond their contempt of the Cuban government alone.

The Biden administration would do better to focus on the failings of Cold War relics and highlight opportunities missed by the American people as a result. He could find partners from agricultural states and industry leaders in telecommunications, cruise lines and professional sports that would lobby the cause. In 2000, red state farmers were instrumental in the Congressional decision to permit U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba. It was the feeling from many in the business community that, after diplomatic relations were reestablished by Obama, the embargo was on its last legs. The new zeitgeist even made Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to boldly proclaim that sanctions may end as soon as 2017. 

That turned out to be a pipe dream. In place of American investment, Cuba has gone elsewhere, making nearly $2 billion worth of deals in 2020 with eager partners like China.

Full restoration of ties will require Congressional action and Biden should heed his own call for unity by reaching across the aisle to muster votes. He could breathe life into the languishing bill, United States-Cuba Relations Normalization Act from 2019, which calls for an end to the fruitless embargo. In addition to the loss of commercial opportunity, age-old programs of democracy promotion in Cuba are costly to taxpayers. Initiatives ambling along in their seventh decade of life currently total tens of millions of dollars yearly and have never changed the hearts and minds of everyday Cubans or weaken Havana’s control over its population.

It will be an uphill climb, for sure. There is strong opposition in the Senate-led by the Cuban American faction Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas). In Havana, President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s government has implemented some liberal reforms codified in a new Constitution in 2019, but the country still restricts democratic liberties, witnessed by the recent crackdown on the San Isidro Movement waged by artists, intellectuals and their allies against state censorship. Finally, Cuba must guarantee the health of diplomats that fell mysteriously ill in 2017.

Biden should advance his publicized commitment, which could become a cornerstone of a more robust Latin American policy. There may be a tradeoff, however. To get closer to Cuba, he may have to distance himself from Cuban America.   

John A. Gronbeck-Tedesco is an associate professor of American Studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter @Professor_G_T.

Tags biden administration Bill Clinton Bob Corker Bob Menendez Communism Cuba Cuban voters Cuban-Americans Democrats Donald Trump foreign affairs Joe Biden Marco Rubio Miguel Díaz-Canel Mike Pompeo Republicans Robert Menendez State terrorism Ted Cruz US-Cuba relations USA

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