50 years ago today, as 1958 came to a close, so did one unpopular Cuban dictatorship, only to be replaced by a significantly more oppressive and longer-lived one. I fall squarely into the camp that believes that U.S. policy toward Cuba, particularly our mystifyingly anti-capitalist trade embargo in addition to restrictions on travel and currency exchange, has to at least a small extent exacerbated an awful situation and emboldened what ought to have been a weak regime, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union.
On this bleak anniversary I'm heartened somewhat by the fact that Barack Obama is making at least some motions toward easing some of the more ridiculous restrictions. To be sure, I'm less than thrilled by the fact that Obama has backed off his previous support of full trade normalization in order to, just like nearly every other mainstream presidential candidate in recent history, kiss some Floridian ass. However, were Obama to at least reopen travel for Cuban Americans (who, as per a George W. Bush-imposed limit that had a fairly decent level of support within the Cuban community, can currently visit Cuba once every three years) and remove the $300 limit on sending money to family in Cuba, that itself would be far more progress than any post-Cold War president has overseen. And that's not for nothing:
“U.S. Cuba policy has not been a foreign policy,” explained Shannon O’Neil, the Douglas Dillon Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s been a domestic policy, based on the Cuban vote in Florida.” In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush relied on the Cuban vote to carry Florida by narrow margins. Without the Sunshine State, he would not have won either election.
In 2008, however, the equation changed, as Obama won while carrying just 35 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Florida. “The Cubans voted overwhelmingly against Obama,” said Daniel Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue and author of The Cuba Wars. “So what the November election shows is that he did not need the Cuban vote to win Florida, and he did not need the Florida vote to win the presidential election.”
While I take the point that Cuba policy for the last few decades has really been little more than thinly veiled electoral strategy (a tendency that Bill Clinton and other Democrats are as guilty of perpetuating as the Republicans who tend to benefit more from it), this is misleading. Erikson fails to mention that 35% is the largest proportion any Democrat has won from Cuban Americans in quite a long time: compare this with George Bush's haul of up to 76% of Cubans' votes in Florida in 2004, a year that Republicans experienced relative success up and down the ticket, including the election of the first Cuban to the U.S. Senate. Despite all that 2004 was was still a substantial improvement for Democrats as compared to 2000, when Bush picked up 81% (a figure that may be somewhat inflated due to lingering resentment toward the Clinton administration over the Elian Gonzalez ordeal in addition to Bush's particularly strong courtship that year of Cuban voters.) The fact is, if Cubans were to begin to split their votes any closer to down the middle (let alone joining other Hispanics' increasingly overwhelming break toward Democrats), Florida would be a fairly solidly blue state every time.
The purpose of bringing up Cubans' electoral history is to point out that these really is as good as circumstances will get for would-be Cuba policy reformers. Obama brings with him an unprecedented level of support (for a Democrat) from Cubans, particularly from the ever-growing, less ideologically monolithic group of younger, pragmatic Cuban Americans. And not only that, but, as my handful of loyal readers might recall, Cuban American support for an end to the embargo is at an all-time high.
With the Castros' time undoubtedly coming to its end, at this point an end to the embargo is very close to "too little, too late" territory. If Obama is serious enough about reform to salvage some semblance of American dignity in this area after 50 years' worth of embarrassing failed policy--not to mention the added bonus of garnering favor among a rising Cuban generation by encouraging American investment in a country that will face dramatic change soon--now's the time.
Photo by DCvision2006, released under Creative Commons.