President Obama’s announcement Wednesday of steps to reestablish diplomatic relations and liberalize economic ties with Cuba signals the continued decline of a once politically formidable bloc: Cuban American hard-liners. The product of demographic and opinion trends that have been building for over two decades, these policy changes became timely following the results of the recent congressional elections.
For decades following Castro’s ascent, a relatively small group of intense and powerful Cuban exiles effectively dictated U.S. policy toward Cuba. Facing little opposition, they leveraged their political and economic resources along with the geographic advantage of being located in a key swing state to demand compliance from politicians of both parties. From training private militias to invade Cuba, and attacking those who spoke publicly against them, to threatening members of Congress with primary challenges if they did not support their positions, their goal was to bring down the Castro government by any means necessary.
Though the hardliners successfully fought their domestic political adversaries, ultimately they could not fight time. The shifting demographics in the Cuban American community — owing to the increased proportion of Cuban Americans who immigrated after the 1980 Mariel Boatlift and hence had little experience with pre-revolutionary Cuba, have long portended change. Unlike those who arrived before Mariel, these more recent immigrants came as economic refugees, rather than political ones, and now make up a strong majority of Cuban Americans.
These immigrants have different social and political concerns than the earlier immigrants, and they are much more likely to have close relatives living in Cuba. The policy changes thus directly affect them. The different interests and experiences of these recent immigrants are also the central reason why the Cuban American community has become much more progressive on the issues of the travel, remittances and trade. While majorities of Americans and Floridians have long supported liberalizing ties, over the last few years a majority of Cuban Americans have begun to, as well.
Political circumstances help explain the timing and make Obama’s announcement especially opportune. Obviously, the policy changes have been in the works for some time. Anticipating the GOP’s gaining control of the Senate in November’s elections, Obama was likely looking for opportunities to advance policies that don’t require congressional support. The 114th Congress is likely to be even more difficult to deal with than the last one. Unlike repealing the trade embargo, these policy changes do not require congressional approval.
Importantly, today’s political cleavages also serve to free Obama’s hand on the issue. Nationally, Republicans have been divided on the issue, as Midwestern agricultural interests along with some business-oriented Republicans support relaxing restrictions in order to open Cuban markets to U.S. agricultural products. (While foodstuffs can already be sold to Cuba under humanitarian exemptions to the embargo, restrictions precluding the issuance of credit have limited these sales as Cuban cash is in short supply). The recent elections likely lowered these costs even further as the Democrats lost Rep. Joe Garcia’s seat — the one Democrat who might conceivably be punished for the policy change. In essence, Obama enacted a policy supported by most Democrats that should facilitate these more recent immigrants embrace of the Democratic Party, while making salient an issue that divides Republicans. In this sense, like his bold announcement of support for gay marriage, Obama got in front of an issue on which opinion had already flipped.
The issue is also problematic for Republican presidential aspirants. While Republican Party elites are somewhat divided on the issue, two possible candidates have a long history of opposing diplomatic relations and supporting restrictions on trade with and travel to Cuba. By highlighting this issue, Obama publicizes Sen. Marco Rubio’s — and perhaps even more importantly, former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s — support for the hard line policies embodied in the status quo — a position out of step with all but a decreasing slice of activist Cuban American voters. Bush and Rubio are firmly wedded to these controversial policies as Cuban American hard-liners constitute substantial parts of their personal constituencies. Moreover, to the extent that the discussion touches on the special immigration status given Cuban immigrants, it further serves to highlight Bush’s lack of congruence on the issue of immigration with his party.
Ben Bishin is a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside.