Following President Obama’s historic decision to normalize relations with Cuba, many have asked – “why now?” An incident that occurred within his own party last week may provide insight into the answer.
Much speculation as to the timing of Obama’s decision back in December centred on the realization that his presidential elections were behind him, and with only two years left in his administration any political cost would not be as great. He undoubtedly, as well, understood the changing realities of the Cuban-American community, who in the majority favor normal relations with their former homeland – convincing him that this would be the time to benefit from the new demographics. It’s also not unreasonable to surmise Obama’s presidential sense of legacy played a role. In national politics he will forever be remembered for introducing Obamacare and its attempt to bring rationality to America’s health care system. Re-establishing relations with Cuba could very well be his foreign policy equivalent.
And yet, one other factor not generally considered may have persuaded Obama it was the proper moment to reach out to the Cuban revolutionary government: a crushing electoral defeat of his own party.
When the Democratic brand was firmly rebuffed by voters at the mid-term elections this past November, it not only changed the Congressional landscape in Washington but might also have strengthen Obama’s resolve to move forward on his new Cuban policy without having to confront some powerful obstacles from his own side.
While the pro-embargo supporters in the majority have historically been represented by Republicans in Congress, a few key Democratic members have been just as staunchly anti-revolutionary. None more so than Robert Menendez, considered the most influential Democrat in favor of maintaining the hostile status-quo against the Castro government. Prior to the mid-terms, Menendez was head of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and in that position was often able to circumvent potential Democratic support towards any easing of the embargo or travel restrictions against Cuba. Other Democrats, such as Florida’s Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, have also endorsed pro-embargo policy, but Menendez was the most prominent of the group, and was afforded considerable deference by the White House on his opposition to change in Cuban policy .
After the Republicans took the Senate in the mid-terms, Menendez lost his position as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. While remaining the senior Democratic member on the committee, his anti-Cuban voice no longer carried the same political weight within his own party. This allowed Obama to sidestep the politically difficult situation of having to override the objectives of the most powerful Democrat on foreign relations issues in Congress, particularly the one who was considered an expert on how to best deal with Cuba.
With Menendez no longer head of the committee, Obama was free of that political consideration and only had to deal with the expected Republican opposition – an easy matter where he has plenty of experience to draw on. It was the Democratic loss of the Senate that gave the President the freedom to act unilaterally, even against the wishes of a few in his party, to move on a policy he knew was right for the United States.
If the Democrats had retained the upper chamber of Congress, and there was no change in the head of the Foreign Relations Committee, Obama may have delayed announcing the new approach out of consideration for Menendez’s standing and his supposed credibility on the Cuba issue. Instead, Obama was able to present any opposition as simply far-right Republican obstinacy from their Cuban-American representatives. Not having to consider Menendez’s powerful voice in opposition was surely a relief for Obama and a boost to his determination to proceed with the policy shift. It was the right time for the announcement.
Menendez, however, continues in his efforts to derail the new strategy towards Cuba; the difference now is his position doesn’t carry political weight, making it easier for the President to diminish his protestation, if not to ignore it completely. Evidence of that changing scenario came last week when Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, attempted to interject his influence on the normalization process with little result.
The Senator from New Jersey made it known he objected to the expectation that Cuba will be removed from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Cuban officials have stressed this is a critical condition; no advancement towards normalization of relations could be accomplished with Cuba still on the list. There are serious consequences to being on the list, including international financial penalties and restrictions to access American banking processes for the Cuban Interest Section in Washington. Cuba’s maintenance on the list is a particular sore point with the Havana government. They have consistently pointed to the hypocrisy of the designation by claiming that thousands of Cuban citizens have been killed over the past decades by terrorist acts organized by various Cuban-American anti-revolutionary organizations operating out of south Florida, often with the knowledge of American intelligence officials.
With the U.S. considering the removal in the next month, in the hope that diplomatic relations would be restored in time for the April Summit of the Americas, Menendez wrote letters to Secretary of State John Kerry and FBI director James Comey protesting the change in status. He further asked that the issue of U.S. fugitives on the island be raised with Castro officials, claiming Cuba harbors American fugitives, even though he is aware that there has been no active extradition agreement between the two countries since the Revolutionary government took over in 1959.
In response Cuba has accused the United States of protecting right-wing terrorists who have conspired against Cuba, the most prominent being Luis Posada Carriles, recognized as one of the masterminds of the Cubana airlines bombing in 1976, and still living unfettered in Miami. The Americans may have little incentive to re-establish a functioning extradition arrangement at this time, particularly if it results in Posada’s return to Havana where the former CIA agent might spill secrets of U.S. involvement with terrorism against Cuba.
Menendez will no doubt continue to promote his anti-Cuba agenda, despite the overwhelming evidence that the rest of the country, including most Cuban-Americans, support normalization. His voice, however, does not carry the strength it did when he was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and his influence has been correspondingly diminished. Obama is well aware of Menendez’s objection to removing Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism, but now he can simply acknowledge the displeasure without giving it the political consideration he would have had to if his fellow Democrat was still chairman of the committee.
Ironically, it was the loss of a powerful political opponent on the Cuba issue, one who came from his own party, that may have convinced the president it was the right time to end more than a half century of hostility with the island nation 90 miles off America’s shore.
Keith Bolender is author of Cuba Under Siege (Palgrave 2012).