‘Cuba is not likely to play a role in the US presidential campaign unless there is some unexpected event’

Taken from CEDA

  1. After promising during the 2020 campaign to re-engage with Cuba and roll back many of President Trump’s sanctions, President Joe Biden took no action until J11 protests and an unprecedented number of Cuban migrants in the U.S. – Mexico border forced the administration to respond. In your opinion, will Cuba policy play a role in President Biden’S 2024 campaign? Could re-election allow President Biden to ignore domestic political pressure and fulfill his old promises?

Leogrande: Cuba is not likely to play a role in the U.S. presidential campaign unless there is some unexpected event that propels it into the headlines. In 2020, Biden did his best to avoid saying anything about Cuba for fear of alienating Cuban American voters. The 2024 campaign says that they will target Florida as a possible swing state, so they will most likely pursue the same strategy as in 2020. In addition, the Senate race in Florida could be crucial for the Democrats holding control of the Senate. Three Democratic seats are vulnerable—Montana, Ohio, and West Virginia. One of the only Republican seats that is even slightly vulnerable is Rick Scott’s in Florida, so Biden will do nothing on Cuba that could complicate Debbie Mucarsel-Powell’s Senate campaign. If Biden is re-elected, then a policy more open to engagement is certainly possible, but after three years of Biden hewing so closely to Trump’s policy, it seems unlikely that he would suddenly reverse course and embrace Obama’s normalization.

Bustamante: I read Biden’s 2020 promises a bit differently. He committed to lifting some of the more onerous restrictions on travel and remittances that Trump put in place, but not more, and not too broad “re-engagement.”

But you’re right: once in office, Biden delayed any action on Cuba until circumstances forced the White House’s hand, albeit in contradictory ways. The crackdown against July 11 protestors created a deeply unpropitious environment for the United States to take steps toward sanctions relief. Quite the contrary: Biden added targeted if largely symbolic, sanctions against those responsible for mass arrests. But the subsequent migratory exodus—the largest in Cuba’s history—eventually compelled the administration to take modest steps to restore some travel and remittances, inject a modicum of income into the economy, and try to stem the tide. It was too little too late, as subsequent months showed.

Migration (500,000 to the U.S. alone since late 2021) remains one of the few prisms through which an otherwise disengaged White House occasionally cares about Cuba and Cuba policy. That said, it is hard to envision Cuba playing a major role in the 2024 Biden campaign. The contest for Florida usually brings attention to the issue. However, 2020 and 2022 Democratic losses in Florida appeared to show that the state was definitively red, creating few incentives for Biden to stake out a strong position on Cuba one way or another. More recently, Democrats have shown interest in making something of a play for Florida, after all—perhaps forcing the Republicans to spend campaign money away from true swing states. This may compel the Biden team to issue perfunctory statements on Cuba here and there as it engages the Cuban-American community. But so far, I see little evidence that the Biden campaign is positioned to mount a strong defense of what it has done on Cuba policy (including, perhaps most significantly and popularly, the humanitarian parole program rolled out in 2023, which thousands of Cuban-Americans have used to bring over their relatives safely). Nor do I see them ready to set a strong vision of where to go in the future.

If anything, I expect a continuation of what we’ve seen from the State Department and White House in recent months: rhetoric about “supporting the Cuban people and not the government” that sounds increasingly empty given the scale of the island’s crisis, paired with criticisms of human rights conditions on the island. I expect Democrats to be playing defense, responding to Republican attacks and Trump’s messianic claims (once more) that with only a bit more waiting and sanctions, he can magically “make Cuba great again.” If Biden wins, that hypothetically opens space for bolder initiatives, as it has for other second-term presidents in the past. But I am skeptical, frankly, that this President has much interest or will, save having his hand forced by another July 11-like event or expansion of Cuba’s already dramatic exodus. Thus far, Biden has shown himself willing to sacrifice even modest Cuba measures (like a promised package of measures to support Cuba’s private sector) when they appear to threaten legislative support for greater priorities like Ukraine funding. If Biden is re-elected but Congress remains divided, that may very well remain the case.

2. In your opinion, what are the potential benefits and drawbacks for candidates in taking a more conciliatory or confrontational stance towards Cuba during the election season? How might shifts in public opinion regarding Cuba influence the positions taken by candidates leading up to the November 2024 elections?

Leogrande: Cuban Americans are the only constituency in the United States that cares enough about Cuba to vote based on a candidate’s Cuba policy. Democratic presidential candidates, except Obama, have traditionally tried to be just as tough on Cuba as Republicans, hoping that Cuban Americans would vote Democratic based on other issues—or they have tried to dodge the Cuba issue, as Biden did in 2020. Obama, on the other hand, supported engagement with Cuba in his 2008 campaign, appealing to moderates in the community, and he did as well among Cuban Americans as any Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976. In 2012, he did even better, which made him politically comfortable pursuing normalization. Obama’s approach energized moderate Cuban Americans and shifted opinion in the community toward engagement.

Biden, in 2020, could have followed Obama’s strategy, but he chose not to because polls suggested that Cuban American opinion in Florida had shifted back to the right during the Trump administration. Democrats lost Florida, statewide and Congressional elections, by wide margins in 2020 and 2022, and Cuban American party identification as Republicans has been increasing. Consequently, the Biden campaign is not likely to see any benefit from a conciliatory policy toward Cuba, whereas Trump will almost certainly use inflammatory rhetoric to mobilize Cuban American conservatives behind his campaign as he has in the past.

Bustamante: It remains much easier for candidates in South Florida and beyond to take a hardline position on Cuba than defend a case for engagement. It also takes the littlest amount of work. The arguments are pre-baked (resource denial, symbolic positioning against despotism), even as the evidence that sanctions will bring about the desired results of a political transition remains as wanting as ever.

By contrast, staking out a position that the United States must proactively engage with Cuba to stand a better chance of improving the lives of the Cuban people remains perceived as a political loser or headache for most. President Obama showed that message leadership could bring many, including in the Cuban American community, around to a different point of view. But in light of lackluster message leadership from this White House and the Cuban government’s domestic failures and crackdowns, there has also been a striking re-radicalization of Cuban-American views, per the FIU Cuba Poll. More recent immigrants in the community, voting in greater numbers, are especially disenchanted with the country they left behind, fueling a resurgence in support for hardline rhetoric and policies. Meanwhile, for most elected officials outside South Florida who don’t have to contend with Cuban-American voters, assuming a strong position in favor of engagement is seen as bringing few political payoffs on an issue of relatively little importance. That’s why so few do. (The congressional “engagement coalition,” compromised of folks from agricultural states, other moderate Republicans, and congressional liberals, looks a lot weaker today than it did a decade ago.

Of course, one can make a good argument that Cuba policy, like foreign policy generally, should be formulated with national and not narrow electoral interests in mind. Some contend that the move of Florida from a purple to a red state should free Democrats to take a more affirmative position in favor of engagement, seen by many as key to alleviating some of the conditions generating such strong out-migration. The problem is that there is such a small constituency nationally that really cares about Cuba, and Cuba has relatively little strategic interest to offer to the United States (unlike Venezuela’s oil, for instance). Thus, candidates conclude it is easier to simply cater to a set of views that they believe will help motivate, or not alienate, the one set of voters that could care most: Cuban-Americans. And that’s if they talk about Cuba at all.

The truth, as the FIU Cuba Poll has repeatedly shown, is that Cuban-Americans don’t base their vote around foreign policy issues any more than most Americans do. But that is lost on most elected officials and candidates. The conversation around Cuba, meanwhile—connected in recent years to broader, hysterical discourse from the right about the “dangers of socialism” domestically—does contribute to a political environment in which Cuban Americans cast their votes. That has also favored the “easy path” of staking out a hardline, certainly on the right, with mainstream Democrats in Florida at times trying to “out tough talk” the hardline sectors so as to rebuff the label “socialist” in a community where that term has been weaponized. On both sides, the Cuba policy conversation becomes as much about domestic political posturing as foreign policy.

3. More and more often Cubans are making use of public space to express their grievances which include material needs, such as food and electricity, as well as discontent with their government. The Cuban government blames the embargo for its economic crisis and accuses the U.S. of interference. The U.S. government seems to be indifferent to what is happening on the island. How do you see these playing out? What could be done to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Cuba?

Leogrande: U.S. policy at this moment is deeply cynical, claiming to support the Cuban people while being tough on the government—as if it were possible to crush the economy without immiserating the Cuban population. The immediate humanitarian crisis is due to the government’s inability to import basic necessities—food, fuel, and medicine—because its foreign exchange earnings have fallen 40 percent from pre-COVID levels. To be sure, the government’s policy failures have created structural weaknesses in the economy. But the current shortage of foreign exchange is largely the result of the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” designed to cut off all sources of hard currency flowing to the island—remittances, U.S. tourism, cheap oil from Venezuela, and revenue from the export of medical services.

Biden has left many of Trump’s sanctions in place, hamstringing Cuba’s ability to recover from the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic. If Biden really cared about the suffering of the Cuban people, he could authorize direct humanitarian assistance in the form of food and medicine channeled through the international Red Cross. He could proactively encourage UN relief agencies to respond positively to Cuba’s recent request for assistance. He could work with the European Union to encourage a coordinated aid response from the EU member states. And he could lift certain sanctions—like taking Cuba off the terrorism list—that would make it easier for Cuba to import the basic goods people so desperately need.

Bustamante: The debate about the embargo and its impact on Cuba seems stuck in a futile, circular pattern with no room for nuance.

In the Cuban diaspora, many insist that the embargo is functionally “nonexistent” because Cuba can trade with other countries or even import food from the United States under the 2000 TSRA. More modestly, others will contend that “it isn’t the real reason for Cuba’s economic woes today” or its political injustices. On the other hand, Cuban officials and “solidarity” circles abroad often talk about U.S. sanctions as if they are the ONLY cause of the economy’s ills and the contemporary crisis. Neither position, in my view, holds up to scrutiny.

Of course, U.S. sanctions have direct and indirect effects on the Cuban economy (e.g., through over-compliance in the international banking system). If not, what would be their point? Symbolism alone? If sanctions were lifted tomorrow, would the Cuban economy improve? Naturally. But the depth of today’s crisis also owes to a stubborn refusal on the part of Cuban officials over the last 15 years (or the past 30, if we go back to the Special Period) to engage in comprehensive, consistent economic reform. And don’t take my word for it: this is the argument Cuba’s best economists have been making more and more, as have many of Cuba’s closest allies privately (e.g., China).

Cuban economists have repeatedly outlined common sense and modest market reforms that Cuba could take to improve its economy, even with sanctions in place. Yet just as they had to wait years to see officials finally recognize that legally recognizing small enterprises would be a good thing, recommendations on matters ranging from foreign investment laws to tax structure for the new private sector to allowing greater autonomy in agricultural production continue to be ignored. Cuban economists are the first to argue that today’s economic crisis owes as much to uneven private sector expansion and the disastrous implementation of currency unification a few years ago (a necessary reform that the Cuban government waited too long to implement) as it does to Trump-era sanctions or the pandemic.

The challenge is that internal and external variables affecting the Cuban economy are deeply intertwined. It is difficult to determine exact quotas of responsibility or a clear path to untying the knot. Sanctions reinforce a siege mentality internally that impedes a reform mindset in the long run, or they lead to piecemeal measures pressed by crisis exigencies rather than a lasting commitment to structural change. On the other hand, understanding full well that U.S.-Cuba policy is not formulated in a political vacuum, Cuban officials continue to take steps (like their response to J11) that make it more politically unsavory or difficult (fairly or unfairly) for the United States to engage in the sanctions relief that could help unlock the potential of domestic reforms. When it had a window of friendly relations with the United States under Obama, Cuba continued to dither no necessary reform rather than seize the opportunity aggressively.

Such is the trap in which all sides appear caught. That said, one of the more interesting developments to me in the last few years—as could be seen in recent protests and, of course, on July 11, 2021—is the fact that fewer and fewer Cubans on the ground appear to buy the argument that their woes are due to U.S. sanctions primarily or alone. That reality also has perverse political implications for the debate over policy in Washington, D.C., reinforcing a standoffish, largely “wait and see” approach, regardless of the humanitarian or migratory toll.

4. Although Cuban American voters represent a small percent of the voters in Florida, their views on U.S. policy toward Cuba is significant. Do you believe this continues to be true? How has the evolving political landscape in the United States affected U.S.-Cuba engagement policies? Have there been any notable shifts or consistencies in approach?

Bustamante: After reaching a nadir under Obama, support for the embargo in the Cuban-American community has rebounded significantly in recent years, even as support for individual engagement measures (esp. more open travel and remittances) remains fairly resilient. Party alignments have become more strongly Republican, too, with those identifying as Democrats showing a sharp decline. Most surprisingly and out of sync with previous patterns, the last FIU Cuba Poll showed that more recently arrived Cuban immigrants are among those who are most supportive of sanctions and the Republican party, specifically Trump.

I see few signs this has changed. We’ll have to wait and see what kind of inroads Democrats can make. It will take pounding the pavement and emphasizing bread-and-butter issues (healthcare, the economy, the cost-of-living crisis) where most working-class Cuban voters live—places like Hialeah—and not in flashy fundraisers at gentrifying nightlife spots on Calle Ocho.

One potential wedge issue will be interesting to watch: migration. The same cohort of the recently arrived migrants in the community that has trended pro-sanctions and pro-Republican has benefitted from Biden administration immigration policies, including advanced humanitarian parole, that have allowed many of their family members to join them in the country. The Republican party, by contrast, has lined up staunchly against this program as a violation of congressional authority over immigration law.

Cuban-American Republicans have tried to thread a needle, claiming to support recent Cuban migrants and seek solutions to some of their recent battles with the immigration system. But this balancing act seems increasingly vulnerable to criticism when their political party has defined itself so uniformly against immigration overall, in often clearly ethnocentric terms. (Witness the trouble Cuban-American Florida Lt. Governor Jeannette Nuñez got into when she seemed to suggest that “illegal” Cuban immigrants, too, should be bused to Democrat-run states. She pivoted to exceptionalism and suggested that Cubans were all “political refugees,” which is not true as a matter of immigration law.)

On the other hand, Cuban-Americans are not of one mind on immigration either, even from their own country. It is not hard to find a Cuban voter who crossed the border her or himself in recent memory who says that “Biden has let the border get out of control.” Immigration may not be the political winner in immigrant-heavy South Florida Democrats presume it to be, particularly as the current immigration crisis places new pressures on infrastructure and rents in already packed immigrant communities. And yet, paradoxically, that same Cuban voter is generally reticent to consider that sanctions in the Cuban case might be at least aggravating the conditions driving so many Cubans to leave the island in the first place.

5. Do you believe the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba affects the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean? What role does/can Cuba play in terms of regional stability? What are the potential risks and opportunities for the United States in recalibrating its approach to Cuba amidst shifting geopolitical alliances?

Leogrande: There is no question that U.S. policy toward Cuba complicates U.S. relations with the rest of Latin America. During the Obama administration, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes called it “an albatross” around the neck of U.S. hemispheric relations, and cited it as one of the main reasons for normalizing relations with Havana. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López-Obrador has insisted that Washington engage with Cuba if it wants Mexico’s help stemming migration. Colombian President Gustavo Petro has been openly critical of Washington for refusing to remove Cuba from the terrorism list. Half a dozen Latin American heads of state threatened to boycott the 2022 Summit of the Americas if Cuba (and Venezuela and Nicaragua) were not invited, and several did, despite Biden’s last-minute effort to mollify them by relaxing some Cuba sanctions on travel and remittances.

Washington’s disengagement from Cuba under Trump and Biden has also increased the opportunities for Washington’s global rivals Russia and China to strengthen relations with Havana. Cuba is in desperate need of external assistance to dig out of the current crisis and it will naturally gravitate to those countries willing to lend a hand. The United States and Cuba are natural economic partners because of proximity, cultural affinity, and the existence of the Cuban American community, ideal for building economic bridges between the two countries. But that natural advantage is being squandered by the policy of sanctions and regime change.

Bustamante: In the Cold War era, Cuba was a centerpiece and a key bogeyman of U.S.-Latin American relations. Today, its strategic importance is much less, save for as a source of migration pressures at the U.S.-Mexico border.

That said, as geopolitical tensions ramp up (U.S. v China, U.S. v Russia), we have seen Cuba inserted into broader hemispheric conversations about threats to U.S. interests from its adversaries. Witness renewed attention to allegations of Russian involvement in so-called “health incidents” affecting U.S. personnel in Cuba and globally. Witness the reaction to reports that the Chinese government has a “spy base” on the island, reports Cuba continues to deny. For some, these alleged links confirm a reading that Cuba is a junior member in an authoritarian axis that shouldn’t be trusted or engaged if it can be avoided. For others, they evidence the consequences of the United States ceding strategic ground through a hard-headed, unilateral sanctions strategy that gives Cuba few other options but to seek support from U.S. rivals.

As ever, parsing truth from fiction remains difficult given the classified nature of many issues involved. My impression is that while Cuba has sought to strengthen its ties with China and Russia in recent years to boost trade, security assistance, and economic relief, talk of transformative investment and economic partnership has been mostly hype. Both the Chinese and Russians, reports suggest, have told the Cubans they need to get their internal economic house in order in a variety of ways. They will do enough to keep the Cuban economy barely afloat but not bail it out.

And yet, pivoting back to the conversation about U.S. electoral politics, rumors, and suppositions are enough to cast the Cuba policy conversation in ominous geopolitical tones. As with the debate over sanctions broadly, it will be easier for candidates to engage in tough talk than propose a strategy that, for example, attempts to use economic engagement to counterbalance Cuba’s eagerness to be a suitor of Chinese or Russian largesse. And the cycle of bilateral hostility may churn on.

6. During President Trump’s first term, US-Cuba relations saw important setbacks. In addition to restricting the use of general licenses for traveling to Cuba, for the first time since 1996, the Trump administration opened U.S. courts to claims presented under chapter III of the 1996 Helms-Burton (LIBERTAD) Act. Some observers claim that Trump toughened policies towards Cuba beyond any reasonable measure. What do you think we can expect if Trump is re-elected?

Leogrande: In his first term, Trump outsourced Cuba policy to the Cuban American right, particularly its congressional representatives, Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart. They bragged about designing Trump’s Cuba policy. Since there is no evidence that Trump cares about Cuba as a foreign policy issue, he would most likely do the same thing in a second term. That would probably mean reversing the few sanctions Biden relaxed on travel and remittances. In 2022, faced with pressure from Latin America on the eve of the Summit of the Americas, Biden restored the people-to-people category of legal travel and removed Trump’s restrictions on remittances. (Travel has still been limited because Biden retained Trump’s ban on staying in any hotel even partially owned by the Cuban government, which is almost all of them.) Reimposing restrictions on travel and remittances would aggravate the government’s inability to import basic commodities and worsen the humanitarian crisis. In a worst case, Trump could prohibit remittances entirely, although that would be opposed by the significant portion of the Cuban American community that is sending remittances to help their relatives on the island.

William M. Leogrande is a Professor of Government at American University. Michael J. Bustamante is an Associate Professor of History and Emilio Bacardí Moreau Chair in Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami.
Leave a comment