As hundreds of Cubans risk their lives and go to protests in the streets, demanding prosperity and liberty after more than sixty years of continual communist rule on the island. Many politicians in Florida (of both parties) have denounced the violence of the castrista regime and have sided with the protestors and so has President Biden. However, this week’s protests will also bring a dilemma to the Democrat’s approach to Cuban policy and how their decision will affect their electoral chances in the sunshine state.
Democrats -more specifically the Biden Administration- are facing a threefold problem: they need to provide an effective policy to address the Cuba issue, they need to regain the trust of the Latin American electorate in South Florida if they ever want to win the state again, and they are also facing a divided party on the issue of Cuba.
Foreign policy issues are not in the minds of the voters when they decide to cast their ballots unless there is a major war or national threat to the nation, however, Cuba is a whole different ballgame. Former Democratic Congressional leader Tip O’Neil used to say “all politics is local”, in South Florida is used to say that “foreign policy is local politics”.
Although the Cuba-American vote has historically tended towards the Republican Party, Democrats enjoyed a significant improvement in their performance. With Obama managing to practically split the Cuba-American vote in his 2012 victory against Mitt Romney.
However, last year, the electorate of South Florida turned decisively against the Democratic Party. The Democrat stronghold of Miami-Dade, which voted for Hillary Clinton with almost 64% of the vote shifted more than 20 points to the Republican side in 2020, with Biden barely winning the county with 53.4% of the vote.
Hence, Biden will not only need to carefully calibrate his messaging towards the current protests but also make a politically difficult decision once his administration finishes their review on the policy towards Cuba from the Trump administration. His decision will not only set the tone for U.S policy towards the region, but it could also be a watershed moment for the 2024 fight for the White House.
The Obama-Trump dillema
In 2014, the Obama administration decided to reopen diplomatic contacts with the Castro regime in Cuba. During the final two years of the Obama presidency, his administration reopened an embassy in Cuba, loosened economic sanctions (including travel, remittances, among others), and ended the “wet foot, dry foot” policy which allowed Cuban refugees to seek legal residence in the United States.
The rationale over the Obama-era negotiations was that it would theoretically allow for a liberalization of the Cuban regime as people would get more access to goods and services and be more able to demand concessions to the communist dictatorship.
However, many think such an approach was doom to fail, with the former special envoy to Venezuela Elliot Abrams saying that Obama offered a huge sloth of economic and diplomatic concessions while the Cuban government maintained the same degree of political repression in the island, saying that Obama’s policies brought legitimacy to the government “while bringing no benefits to Cubans struggling for freedom and human rights”.
Many of these changes were overturned by the Trump administration, which reimposed travel restrictions and prohibited U.S nationals to trade with companies owned by the Cuban military (which are the ones that received most of the investment) and reduced its personnel in the embassy after many of the diplomatic corp sustained bizarre, unexplained injuries.
Biden announced he would review the changes implemented by the Trump White House. The administration was certainly hoping to keep the issue in the backburner, with Press Secretary Jen Psaki saying that a shift in Cuba policy was not a “top priority” for the government, however, the recent protests will put pressure on Biden as he will have to decide whether to retake Obama’s strategy or keep Trump’s approach.
The domestic political calculus over Cuba
As said before, the issue of American policy towards Cuba is not one that is considered exclusively under the lenses of geopolitics and pursuing America’s interests in the region, it is also a fundamentally domestic issue as millions of exiled Cuban-Americans live (and vote) in the United States.
Democrats sustained heavy losses in Miami-Dade county in 2020, largely due to Trump’s outreach to the Latino community, Democrats’ flirtations with socialism, and the GOP’s adamant opposition to further concessions to the communist dictatorship in Cuba.
Florida is already a swing state where Democrats have historically relied on good results in Miami-Dade to win the state, if they cannot recover those margins, they have little hope to win Florida’s 30 electoral votes in 2024. Keeping a strong position against the communist regime in Cuba is an important first step for Democrat’s hopes in South Florida, and Biden (and Florida Democrats) knows it.
Despite an initial timid response, the Biden administration eventually released a statement supporting the protesters and condemning the Cuban regime. Whether this verbal support will translate to actual policy is another question, but the U-turn in messaging by the White House shows that they’re painfully aware that they will need to hear more from the community in South Florida if they ever want to regain their votes.
However, even if Biden wanted to send a cohesive Democratic message against the Cuban regime, his party is not united enough to do so. While Speaker Pelosi has tweeted her support for Cuban protestors, Senator Majority Leader has not posted anything yet and Progressive superstars like Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) have also not said a word about what’s happening in Cuba.
In fact, the last two congresswomen are members of the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America), an organization that has actually supported the Cuban regime. Both have yet to distance themselves from that position.
By contrast, Republicans have made an organized and quite unified response to the crisis. With both House GOP and Senate GOP caucuses flooding their social media accounts with posts and videos supporting the protesters.
In politics is crucial to have a unified and effective messaging, and if Biden wants to improve his party’s approach to Cuba, he needs to first get his house in order.
Cuba policy will remain a headache for Democrats
Democrats want to regain ground in Florida, especially as Ron DeSantis’ national figure rises. In order to do that, they need to regain the trust of the Hispanic electorate in South Florida (the same one that voted for Obama and Hillary), and while some might have hoped that they could do that by avoiding any talk of Cuba policy, the latest protests in the island show them that’s impossible.
Biden will have to make a tough choice. Either he decides to take a 180º shift towards Cuban policy, risking unpopularity in South Florida and without the certainty of getting any positive result, or he decides not to do it, which would be an implicit admission that Trump’s approach to the Habana regime was right all along.