Fear of Florida: Biden’s electoral calculations on Cuba

There are two very evident facts in Joe Biden’s policy towards Cuba: 1) there was a decision to maintain a policy of maximum pressure inherited from the Trump administration; and 2) there was no flexibility adopted during Biden’s first 16 months in office — the most complex part of the pandemic in Cuba. Academics and experts who have studied this issue have argued that one of the key reasons for this is the political-electoral factor. They have come to describe it as ‘Fear of Florida.’

This suggests that the Biden administration, for more than a year, determined that correcting policy towards Cuba, no matter how minimal, would result in political costs when it comes to Cuban-American voters. It is a vision that can be explained from the point of view of the White House’s interest in winning upcoming elections in Florida — from the governor’s race to a U.S. Senate race. To achieve these victories a key role is given to Cuban American voters.

In essence and based on this logic, it seems that the ‘smartest’ position that prevailed in Washington was the need to preserve Trump’s policy towards Cuba intact as a key element in achieving these objectives. In actuality, doing nothing was a very strange and suspicious decision if the goal was to influence and attract an electorate with a Republican inclination and, especially supporters of Trumpism, to the Democratic Party. Any electoral strategist with a basic level of information would conclude that this approach would not lead to any desired results. Immobility as a strategy for an election does not work and lacks a logical basis. The usual thing in this scenario is to try to stand out by proposing a different policy that helps to connect with the electorate and is reflected at the polls.

In this sense, it is necessary to ask a question: What measures of flexibility in the policy towards Cuba was favored by Cuban-American voters? According to the Florida International University (FIU) survey conducted in the midst of the 2020 electoral campaign, the majority of these voters agreed to the temporary lifting of blockade sanctions during the pandemic (60%); restoring the issuance of visas at the US Embassy in Havana (62%); resuming the Family Reunification Program (60%); promoting strategies designed to improve the economic well-being of the Cuban people (78%); and restoring flights to airports in the Cuban provinces (65%).

A comprehensive evaluation of this data indicates that the Biden administration had majority support among Cuban-American voters to adopt measures to relax the aforementioned policy items towards Cuba from the beginning of his presidency. Although many of these voters voted for Trump and supported his domestic political agenda, they also agreed that specific measures be taken that would benefit their relatives in Cuba, reflected in the fact that more than 50% of these voters traveled to the Island and 48% sent remittances.

Therefore, the strong blood- and emotional ties were sufficient motivation to explain what appeared to be a contradiction: that Cuban-Americans who are Trump supporters favored these measures. Taking these elements into account, it was neither logical nor consistent for Biden and his team to fear how the easing of these measures would impact the majority of the Cuban-American electorate. The US was not running into any political risks if it had agreed to provide medicine, oxygen, medical equipment and other humanitarian needs during the peak of the pandemic in Cuba. Why didn’t Biden seize this opportunity and turn it into electoral gain?

The fact of not adopting these steps at that time was not associated with electoral logic, but with a perception that any relief for the situation of the Cuban people could be counterproductive with their policy of suffocation and maximum pressure in a context they interpreted as very advantageous to their interests. The prolonged process of reviewing the policy, and the lack of determination of the White House in its projection towards Cuba, did not respond to calculations of eventual electoral political costs for the 2022 and 2024 elections, but to an appreciation of what they considered the most effective way to influence the internal Cuban situation and trigger processes that would lead to regime change as the final objective. It was a kind of ‘once in a lifetime opportunity.’

The results of the FIU survey also show that it was not necessary to extend the announcement of relaxation of measures until May 16 of this year. From the moment that Biden took office, all the conditions were created for the majority of the Cuban-American electorate to support the reestablishment of the Family Reunification Program, resume flights to the provinces, reestablish the issuance of visas in Havana, as well as making possible an official mechanism for sending remittances to their families and to the private sector in Cuba. Therefore, these late announcements do not respond to an electoral logic either, but rather are associated with reasons of national security based on the significant and unprecedented increase in the flow of Cuban emigrants to the United States during the last six months.

On the other hand, there is a myth and narrative that tries to establish as an indisputable fact that the Cuban-American vote is conditioned and directly linked to the position that the different candidates exhibit on Cuba policy. This statement is far from being true and is not supported by any evidence beyond the reproduction of a belief promoted by the most extremist sectors that have managed to confuse and create this perception in politicians who need to face voters in South Florida. This boils down to the fact that the only way to win that segment of the electorate is to “promote the hard line” and agree with the extremist sectors.

The Democratic Party has been a victim of this kind of ‘syndrome’ for a long time. Research and the results of surveys carried out by FIU professor Guillermo J. Grenier have shown that the motivations of Cuban-Americans when they exercise their vote do not consider Cuba policy among the most important issues. These voters focus mainly on domestic political issues, which is the trend that prevails among voters nationwide. In the 2018 survey, when respondents were asked to rank their issues in order of priority, the response was as follows: the economy and jobs, health care, gun control, taxes and spending, immigration, foreign policy and Cuba policy.

In the survey conducted at the end of 2020, the order was as follows: the economy, health care, race relations, immigration, policy towards China and policy towards Cuba. Taking these results into account, Professor Grenier stated: “It seems unlikely that an individual Cuban-American would vote for a candidate, or follow a party, simply because they coincide with US policies toward Cuba. Other political concerns seem to be more important motivators.”

In the studies carried out by Grenier, it has been shown that in the last 15 years there is a direct relationship between the policy promoted by the White House towards Cuba and the position of Cuban-Americans on relations between Washington and Havana. The most illustrative example was during the presidency of Barack Obama, which is evidenced by the following data: in 2007, 64% of Cuban-Americans supported the blockade. By 2016, only 39% maintained that position. Lesson learned is that presidential leadership has the ability to influence the political behavior of the South Florida community with regard to relations with Cuba.

Currently, the political tendencies that prevail among Cuban-American voters show majority support for Trump’s maximum pressure policy. In the last survey carried out in March 2021 by Bendixen & Amandi International, data showed that 66% supported the blockade, which means a regression in attitude similar to the period of the George W Bush presidency. Also, 65% supported more unilateral measures to “force a regime change in Cuba.”

The political environment in South Florida and, especially, within that complex microworld of Cuban-American voters as a result of the Trump factor and the inability of the Democratic Party to find a strategy that allows it to reverse the trends that prevail in this type of voters, gives Biden practically no options to influence the Cuban-American vote.

In practical terms, it is an electorate that they have lost and no measure adopted by the White House will have the capacity to modify their electoral behavior, at least until the next elections in November. If Biden and his team aspire to change this situation, it does not only depend on the Cuba issue, but rather they will have to remove the foundations of a Republican Party that is taking greater root in Florida daily. There is a much-argued debate that this swing state could become a Republican territory after the results of the upcoming November elections.

In any electoral math linked to South Florida, the Cuba issue will necessarily be present. For that reason, it is significant to bear in mind these words written by Professor Grenier with good reason and insight: “It is extremely unlikely that a large part of the Cuban-American electorate will gravitate towards the Democratic Party simply because it maintains a belligerent attitude towards Cuba. Until Biden establishes and implements his own vision, he will continue to promote a Trump-defined order of things.”

From Contexto latinoamericano. Translation to English by Progreso Weekly.