President Obama’s historic decision to thaw our Cold War isolation of Cuba – to restore full relations for the first time since 1961, to boost travel, banking commerce, and trade – is a diplomatic chess move that, until quite recently, would’ve been politically unthinkable in America.
It was once deemed political suicide for anyone to even suggest that we reopen embassies with Cuba, or trade with Cuba, or remove Cuba from our list of terrorist nations. The conventional wisdom was that Florida’s Fidel-hating Cuban-Americans would stomp any aspiring national pol who dared stray from the Cold War shibboleths; that those impassioned voters had the clout to sway Florida in a close presidential race; and that because Florida was so politically pivotal, thou shalt not ever utter normalization blasphemy.
Typically, 70 percent of Florida’s Cuban-Americans voted GOP. Democrats dutifully toed the Cold War line, mindful that Al Gore got barely 20 percent of the Cuban votes in 2000 – and he lost Florida, and the election, by a hair. In August 2001, I spent a few days in Miami’s Little Havana, gauging political sentiment, and Republican ad-maker Herman Echeverria best summarized the status quo when he told me, “In this community, the Castro issue is the hook. You can propose the best policies in the world for children and the elderly, but if you’re not politically correct on Castro, forget it.”
He was right then, but he’d be wrong now. A lot has changed in the last 13 years.
Basically, the most ardent anti-Castro Cuban voters – who remember when Fidel seized power in 1959 from the American-backed (and Mafia-backed) dictator Fulgencio Batista – are dying off. Their offspring, and their offsprings’ offspring, aren’t nearly as hawkish or as reflexively conservative. The Castro “hook” is gone.
In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, support for the GOP in Florida’s Cuban community has plunged since 2002. That year, in terms of party identification, Cubans aged 18 to 49 favored the GOP over Democrats by a margin of 20 percentage points; last year, Cubans 18 to 49 favored the Democrats over the GOP…by a margin of 20 percentage points. And most tellingly, in 2012, Obama won a majority of the Cuban vote in Miami-Dade County, and won Cubans nationally by two points – results that, again, would’ve been unimaginable for a Democrat a decade earlier.
Other worthy stats: According to a ’13 poll by Florida State University, 68 percent of Miami-Dade Cubans – including 88 percent of those under 30 – said they’re open to the restoration of full diplomatic relations. Obama can’t nix America’s economic embargo on his own (only Congress can do that; insert joke here), 52 percent of Miami Cubans want the embargo to go – a record high. All told, FSU co-pollster Guillermo J. Grenier said: “We are witnessing a clear demographic shift with younger and more recently arrived Cubans favoring a change in policy toward the island.”
This is the political context for Obama’s decision. Leaders need not pay a penalty any longer for acknowledging 50 years of policy failure, for recognizing reality and nudging us into the 21st century.
You know the zeitgeist on Cuba has fundamentally changed when an Obama move is lauded by strange bedfellows ranging from ultra-cautious Hillary Clinton to the ultra-capitalist U.S. Chamber of Commerce to Pope Francis- plus a few Republicans. Senator Jeff Flake says that normalization and more commerce “will improve the lot of ordinary Cubans, and it’s good for Americans as well.” Congressman Mark Sanford (South Carolina’s former love guv) says he’s willing to give Obama “credit where credit is due.”
Yes, a Republican actually said Obama should get credit where credit is due. But, of course, that view was an outlier.
Most GOPers and conservatives caterwauled in predictable fashion, partying like it’s 1959. John Boehner assailed the historic announcement as “mindless concessions to a dictatorship.” Jeb Bush, back in the game, said, “I don’t think we should be negotiating with a repressive regime to make changes in our relationship,” somehow forgetting that we’ve been negotiating with repressive regimes – I’m thinking the Soviet Union and China – since at least the Republican era of Richard Nixon.
But best of all was Marco Rubio, the rookie Florida senator who has been marketing himself as a foreign policy wise man. Here’s what he said on Fox News: “(The Cuban thaw) is part of a long record of coddling dictators and tyrants that this administration has established.”
It’s a kick to watch Rubio try to punch above his weight class. Has he ever cracked a history book or read the papers? Presidents of both parties – that includes his own – have been “coddling dictators and tryants” since forever. Like when Ronald Reagan sent Donald Rumsfeld to do business with Saddam Hussein. Or when Reagan coddled an El Salvador regime that dispatched death squads to kill civilians. Or when Reagan coddled the apartheid-driven South African regime. Or when Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter coddled the despotic Shah of Iran.
But most Republicans are still fact-averse about Cuba, and so we can expect them to fulminate anew in ’15 when they vow to block any move to end the antiquated embargo. Saying no is what they do, and if they want to keep defying the American mainstream – in every Gallup poll since 1999, a majority has favored normalized relations – they’re welcome to dig their hole ever deeper.
As Obama and most Cuban-American voters now recognize, the deep freeze on Cuba has merely reduced citizen living standards while embedding the regime. But if we can flood the country with material goodies – as we’ve been doing in China, as we’ve been doing since 2001 in communist Vietnam – we have a better chance to foster political freedom over time. Economic and cultural pluralism are the precursors, and they’ll happen in Cuba only with greater engagement.
Hard to believe that that argument was recently deemed to be political suicide. Let’s celebrate its new potency by lighting a Cuban cigar – legally imported, no less.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.