Foreign Policy Blogs

What lies ahead: Cuba and Obama’s second term

In the recent U.S. election, Cuban-Americans voted for President Obama in record numbers, reflecting in a most convincing way the demographic shift that we have already been watching for years: newer immigrants and younger Cuban-Americans do not prioritize a hard-line U.S. policy toward Cuba, or do not support it at all.

In fact, on November 6, Cuban-American votes split almost evenly between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama: the 48% support for Obama that many exit polls are citing is the highest ever percentage of Cuban-American support for a Democratic presidential candidate, and constitutes a huge increase from the community’s 35% support for Obama in 2008. It also serves to explain why Miami-Dade County — a Cuban-American enclave — was one of the few in the country to produce more votes for Obama this year than in 2008.

This shift holds significance beyond the bounds of the election, however. Hard-line policies toward Cuba continue not because they are productive, nor because they have achieved their ends (regime change remains elusive). They continue for now because certain members of Congress continue to block any changes, and because there has not been sufficient political will to force the issue with the same fervor on the opposite side.

Even the Obama administration’s modest policy changes — increasing opportunities for “people-to-people” travel to Cuba and expanding the rights of Cuban-Americans to travel and send remittances to the island — were met with hostility by these actors. House Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen worked during the presidential campaign to make sure that Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential candidate who in the past had expressed his distaste for the embargo and unproductive U.S. policy toward Cuba, came around quickly to the hard-line stance.

Indeed, in 2002, Ryan told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “The embargo doesn’t work. It is a failed policy… I think it’s become more of a crutch for Castro to use to repress his people. All the problems he has, he blames the American embargo.” In another interview in 2008, he asked: “if we’re going to have free trade with China, why not Cuba?” But a statement from Representative Ros-Lehtinen when Ryan joined the Romney campaign stated that Ryan had spent time with Cuban-American representatives in order to learn “the true nature of the Castro regime, and unlike the Obama-Biden administration, which has appeased and emboldened the Castro regime, the Cuba policy of a Romney-Ryan administration will be clear: no accommodation, no appeasement. A Romney-Ryan administration will place maximum sanctions pressure on the regime and support the brave pro-democracy movement on the island.”

Representative Ros-Lehtinen’s majority Cuban-American support on maintaining that kind of policy is waning. That shift will not necessarily ease pressure from Cuban-American members of Congress, nor diminish their ability to block changes to Cuba policy. But it lessens their mandate to do so, and their credibility as representatives of the community’s opinions.

For now, policy remains static. Last week, the UN General Assembly went through its annual ritual of voting to condemn the U.S. embargo of Cuba; the United States was joined by Israel and Palau as the three countries in the world voting against the UN resolution. A record 188 nations voted in favor of the condemnation.

But Cuba is on the front page of the New York Times. The topic? Easing the embargo.

The tide is moving in favor of change.

(Photo credit: New York Times)



Melissa Lockhart Fortner
Melissa Lockhart Fortner

Melissa Lockhart Fortner is Senior External Affairs Officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles, having served previously as Senior Programs Officer for the Council. From 2007-2009, she held a research position at the University of Southern California (USC) School of International Relations, where she closely followed economic and political developments in Mexico and in Cuba, and analyzed broader Latin American trends. Her research considered the rise and relative successes of Latin American multinationals (multilatinas); economic, social and political changes in Central America since the civil wars in the region; and Wal-Mart’s role in Latin America, among other topics. Melissa is a graduate of Pomona College, and currently resides in Pasadena, California, with her husband, Jeff Fortner.

Follow her on Twitter @LockhartFortner.

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