Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Cuba, Castro and U.S. Electoral Politics

Peter Howard blogs at Duck of Minerva, one of my favorite sites tracking international relations. This week's news that Fidel Castro is "stepping down" due to health issues has been received with little or no notice in the U.S. Bad weather and celebrity gossip get more attention in the media than anything about Cuba, thanks partly to a long-standing policy of denial about that tragic little country.

This is what Professor Howard wrote:

If there is one domestic lobby that has captured US policy toward another country, it is the Cuba lobby that pushes for ever stricter sanctions on the Castro regime. The power of this lobby in Presidential politics can’t be overstated—it is a very large, issue specific, and highly organized voting bloc in Miami Dade county in Florida. Win Florida, win the White House, we all know that story well. Thus, we regularly see leading national politicians competing to out-tough the other in order to make inroads into the Cuban vote in south Florida.

Today’s big news, that Fidel would formally step down as Cuba’s head of state, offers an interesting chance to view the power of this domestic political lobby at a moment when the national interest might suggest an alternative different policy.

The Libertad Act, passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Clinton in the election year of 1996 wrote the US embargo of Cuba into law, significantly strengthening it (Clinton won Florida and won re-election that year). From JFK through 1996, the embargo was a series of Executive orders. The difference: a future president could end the executive orders at any time. Changing the law requires a subsequent act of Congress. A central point of the Libertad act was that the Embargo will remain in force until there is a transitional government in Cuba that does not include Fidel Castro or his brother Raul.

This brings us to today. Fidel stepping aside certainly marks a sea-change in Cuban politics. It does mark a transition in government, but for the time being, Raul Castro remains a part of the picture. This change also presents a unique opportunity for the United States.

Cuba faced tough times after the end of the Cold War. The USSR was a valuable patron, buying its exports and providing funds to subsidize its economy. Without the USSR, Cuba suffered. Recently, though, Hugo Chavez has stepped into that role, using its vast oil profits to funnel money into Cuba.

Here’s the opportunity for the US: take the transition in Cuba, from Fidel to a successor government, to lift the embargo and allow US capital, business, and tourists to pour in (and it would—see the Godfather or Guys and Dolls). Engaging Cuba could steer them away from Chavez and toward the US. The US has identified the rise of Chavez as a national security challenge, and has identified a clear interest in reducing Chavez’s influence in Latin America. [ed. emphasis added]

So, here’s the question: Given a clear national security argument for taking this opportunity to engage Cuba, end the embargo, and peel Cuba away from the Chavez camp, does this National Interest trump the domestic politics of pandering to CANF and Cuban voters in Miami in an election year. Do we see the Cuba lobby press for a continued embargo, further driving Raul and the transition government closer to Chavez? What does Bush do, what does Congress do, and what to the Presidential Candidates press for?

I have been watching Florida presidential politics with amusement for years, watching the Cuban community of South Florida as the tail that wags the presidential electoral dog.

America has in effect preserved and protected its own pet Communist in a little cage ninety miles from Florida, by insuring that none of the forces attacking the rest of world Socialism have been able to get at Cuba. Some keep boa constrictors, some exotic birds, some tarantulas, but the US keeps Cuba. Every four years presidential candidates of all political pursuasions will not risk losing the Cuban votes in Florida, and between elections, whoever is in power keeps those eggs in the basket and is careful that they don't get broken.

Guys and Dolls, indeed. The professor is exactly right, of course, but that little dose of reality has never been part of
power politics that has dictated (er, excuse me...bad word there...maybe inspired would read better...) U.S. Cuban policy for the last forty years or so.

Here is a link to the reaction of Henry Louis Gomez to Castro's move. He has been a tireless articulate blogging voice at Babalu Blog about as long as blogging has been around. I'm sure that along with the rest of the Florida Cuban community he would oppose the notion of revisiting the Libertad Act with a view of opening Cuba to U.S. tourism which, like "glasnost and peristroika" mentioned in his comments, could hasten the end of Cuba's oppressive system in the same way that the Soviet Union came apart.

The never-say-die tenacity of that thinking is not subject to change, even when the word, now made popular by you-know-who is echoing like the shot heard around the world. That snarky reference to "a trite slogan used by a politician's wife who isn't proud of our country" tells us that South Florida ain't Obama Country.

I predict a deafening silence from all the candidates, both Democrat and Republican, about developments in Cuba. Not because they don't know or don't care, but because they have no intention of poking a nest of stinging insects in Florida.

Perhaps the next generation of American-born Cuban expats will persuade their Washington Lobby to lighten up a little.

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