Interview with Professor Guillermo Grenier on Cuban American political opinions

From U.S.-Cuba News Brief

CDA: What is your connection to Cuba?

Professor Grenier: I was born in Cuba and came to the United States in the early 1960s with my parents. I returned to the island in 1979 as a member of the second group of the Antonio Maceo Brigade, a diverse amalgamation of young Cubans who left the island as children. Since then, I’ve developed friendships and professional relationships on the island and continue to visit frequently.

On a more adventurous note, since 2011 I have conducted a series of long distance walks in Cuba. The first walk was from Baracoa to Bayamo (400 km approximately). A couple of years later, I traced the steps, more or less, of the Three Juanes who carried the statue of the Virgen de la Caridad from the Bay of Nipes to El Cobre (150 km). The third trek followed the life of Esteban Montejo, as captured by Miguel Barnet in his book Biografía de un Cimarrón, from Sagua la Grande to Cienfuegos (400 km). I created a trail called El Camino del Cimarron that we hope to establish as a cultural itinerary as soon as this pandemic madness releases its hold on us. Cuba is more than Havana. Who would have guessed!

CDA: The Cuban American community is not a monolith. As you said in one of your books and in a recent blog post, “There are Cubans and there are Cubans.” How can the Biden-Harris administration engage a broad sector of the Cuban American community to ensure it is getting a complete and nuanced picture of the community’s opinions and priorities?

Professor Grenier: The minimum that any administration truly interested in the Cuban American community should do is engage the community in discussions about other issues besides US/Cuba policy. I’m exploring a series of data sets that provide compelling evidence that Cubans are outliers in the Republican party when their views on core Republican issues are taken into consideration. Cuban Americans, for example, are significantly more likely to support reproductive choice policies, gun control, the opposition to deportation of undocumented immigrants and the establishment of a path to citizenship for the undocumented, particularly the children. The community is extremely supportive of student debt forgiveness and national health care for all citizens. These are core Democratic issues that resonate within the Cuban American community. President Biden would do well to encourage the Democratic Party to see the Cuban American community in its entirety as residents and citizens of the U.S., rather than simply an audience receptive to foreign policy speeches on the evils of socialism.

CDA: In October, you and your team at Florida International University (FIU) published the 2020 Cuba Poll. What were your main takeaways from that poll with regards to how the Biden-Harris administration should move forward on Cuba policy?

Professor Grenier: The main takeaway from the poll is that Cuban American opinions regarding US/Cuba policy are shaped by the policies established in Washington. Leadership matters. The year before Obama assumed the presidency, 68% of Cuban Americans supported the embargo. By the time Obama left office, 63% opposed the embargo. Similarly, in 2016, 64% of Cuban Americans supported Obama’s engagement policy.

This is not to say that Cuban Americans supported everything about the policies or that they approved of the Cuban government’s responses to the policies. It simply shows that if policies of engagement are established, Cuban Americans will adjust. Some will see the policies as an opportunity to do business on the island. Others will respond to the family reunification dimensions of engagement policies. Others will see it as a way to ferment conflict on the island by increasing the expectations of the Cuban people and watching/criticizing as the Cuban government maneuvers a response.

This pattern, by the way, of Washington influencing opinion (rather than simply the other way around), holds all the way back to the first Bush administration. During the first Bush’s administration, 85% of Cuban Americans supported the embargo. During the Clinton administration, embargo endorsement rate declined by 3.6% per year. George W.’s years saw a stabilization of the embargo support at the level reached during the Clinton years. During the Obama administration, support for the embargo resumed its decline by 2.6% per year. This resulted in a drop of 21% between 2008 and 2016.

My advice is “follow the science.” Build the policy, and Cuban Americans will come.

CDA: Recently, Bendixen & Amandi International released a poll of 400 Cuban American Florida voters which some are using as justification for the Biden-Harris administration’s lack of action on Cuba policies. What were your main takeaways from this poll? How would you say these results compare to the FIU 2020 Cuba Poll?

Professor Grenier: So, Cuban American voters in Florida are still crazy in love with Trump and his isolationist policies towards Cuba. I do not think that this surprised anyone. The social contagion of the Trump virus will not dissipate overnight. Ignoring for a second the peculiar decision by the pollsters to include the name of Obama in a question designed to measure policy opinions (Obama’s name carries a certain amount of baggage, shall we say), it is clear that the community has not changed its opinions since the FIU Cuba Poll captured many of the same sentiments leading up to the elections.

The one bit of data which did surprise, that 45% of Cuban Americans have a favorable view of the Biden presidency, did not receive much attention. That’s ten percentage points over the number of respondents who reported voting for Biden. He’s clearly winning over some skeptics.

But the poll is providing political cover for Biden to do nothing about Cuba, even on issues that are supported by most Cuban Americans, such as reopening the consular services of the embassy, resuming flights to all regions of the island and reestablishing the flow of remittances.

CDA: Leading up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, President Biden stated he would reverse “failed Trump policies” on Cuba. This made many Cuban Americans and Cubans on the island hopeful that President Biden would implement Cuba policies which support the Cuban people–policies which are especially needed now as Cubans face a dire economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. What policies do you believe the Biden-Harris administration should prioritize to support the Cuban people and allow Cuban Americans to support their loved ones on the island?

Professor Grenier: The “mangos bajos” [low hanging fruit] of US/Cuba policy are evident: reopen the consular services of the embassy, resume flights to all regions of the island and reestablish the flow of remittances. If the Biden/Harris administration is unable to take these humanitarian, simple steps unapologetically, then we are in big trouble.

In fact, over sixty percent of Cuban Americans supported the suspension of the embargo during this time of Covid! This offers a huge opening for the implementation of humanitarian assistance policies, even if temporary, to the Cuban people. Similarly, with some creative strategizing, many economic engagement policies could be packaged under the broad umbrella of “strengthening the Cuban and Cuban-American family.”

But ultimately the lack of will to engage Cuba, and the all too facile willingness to let the south Florida Cuban American community, most of which did not vote for President Biden, call the shots stems from the fact that Cuba is not of significant geopolitical importance. Obama saw US/Cuba relations as a hinge pin of a broader Latin America strategy. I don’t think that Biden/Harris have looked beyond the shoreline yet. China, Iran, Korea, all are out there begging for attention.

Cuba doesn’t play in that league but acting quickly and decisively on Cuba sends a message that the US is paying attention to details and is able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Until Biden and Harris act on Cuba and forge their own way on other foreign policy issues, the United States will remain mired in the world defined by Trump. And to many in the Cuban American community, that is just fine by them.