Commentary Magazine


The Backlash to Obama’s Cuban Thaw Begins

Talk to any Beltway insider and they’ll tell you that President Barack Obama’s administration is on the right side of history in its quest to implement a thaw in relations with communist Cuba. What’s more, they’ll provide the poll numbers that support this assertion. Despite the fact that this island prison nation remains an anachronistic Soviet vassal that continues to harbor fugitives from American justice, Gallup polling since 1999 has shown the public favors establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. Nationally, it’s true that Americans of all political persuasions no longer see the value in maintaining a Cold War posture toward the Cuban regime. In the electorally crucial state of Florida, however, the story is dramatically different.

Initially, the Cuban-American community in Florida appeared inclined to be split on the issue of opening bilateral relations with Cuba. In fact, Cuban-Americans were initially hostile toward Obama’s proposal. In December of 2014, 48 percent of Cuban-Americans polled by Bendixen & Amandi International disapproved of opening relations with Havana while 44 percent approved. By March, however, a narrow majority of Cuban-Americans polled by the same firm had warmed to the notion of a thaw with Cuba. Public pollsters testing the same issue noted that younger Cuban-Americans regarded Washington’s hostility toward Havana as a vestigial relic of a bygone era. The future, Obama’s supporters contended, belonged to them.

But there were indications that the Cuban-American community is still not monolithically enthralled by the project of normalization. “Only one-quarter of Cuban-Americans said they had plans to visit Cuba,” National Journal reported when parsing Bendixen & Amandi International’s March survey. “Almost three-quarters said they wouldn’t be interested in investing in Cuba should it become legal to do so, many citing mistrust of Havana or willful boycott of the Castro brothers.”

“Respondents living in Florida, where the Cuban-American population is concentrated, were less willing to endorse the policy shift, with only 41 percent agreeing with the White House,” that report continued. “That’s in stark contrast to the rest of the country, where Cuban-Americans agreed 3-to-1 that the United States and Cuba should share closer ties.”

This sentiment was observable in the behavior of Florida’s legislature, which expressed strong reservations about the prospect of normalizing relations with Cuba. In April, Florida’s House and Senate adopted identical resolutions opposing the normalization of relations with Cuba and the opening of any Cuban diplomatic office in that state. Again, the Florida legislature seemed to observers in Washington to be behind the times. The state’s residents approved of the opening of relations with Cuba, after all, and the Sunshine State’s business community had long been cultivating relationships with their Cuban counterparts.

But politicians closest to a given issue do occasionally have their finger on the pulse; at least, better than do those in the pundit class. The latest canary in the mine to pass on to oblivion amid spastic, gasping contortions is impossible to ignore. This week, Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, issued a stinging rebuke of the president’s Cuba policy.

“I believe a relationship with the United States should be earned,” Wasserman Schultz told reporters with The Heritage Foundation’s The Daily Signal. “[P]erhaps we should make sure that some of these human rights concessions are secured prior to moving forward.”

She added, however, that she believed Obama’s approach to bilateral relations with Cuba could, in the long run, benefit the Cuban people by providing the United States with more negotiating leverage. It might also create a more advantageous position for America to advocate for a liberalization of Cuba’s human rights policies.

“Anytime we’re at the negotiating table with any nation like Cuba that has as horrendous a human rights record as they do, it’s an opportunity to be able to assert our view that making sure that any nation in the world should have freedom of their elections, that people should have the right to elect a person of their choice, that they should be able to speak freely, even if it is against the actions of their government and not be subject to arrest, that they should be able to make sure they can move freely throughout their country,” she said. “So President Obama’s policy allows us to be able to press those priorities at the negotiating table.”

Republicans like Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who has made opposition to normalization of relations with Cuba the centerpiece of their Sunshine State strategy, might not be waging so quixotic a fight after all. Rubio, who called Obama’s series of “one-sided concessions” toward Cuba a display of “weakness” that the Castro brothers would undoubtedly exploit, can now claim that his apprehension toward normalization is a sensible, bipartisan approach. Even if Rubio fails to secure the GOP’s presidential nomination, Republican opposition to rewarding Cuba for bad behavior doesn’t seem to be the obvious electoral loser that many in the commentary class assumed it was.

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