Joe Biden was Obama’s vice president when the process of normalization started and was active in implementing it. Biden, the candidate, promised that his foreign policy would be guided by concerns over human rights and the welfare of people. He would “try to reverse the failed Trump policies that inflicted harm on Cubans and their families” and explicitly promised to seek greater engagement. Why then is Biden following in Trump’s footsteps?
Pandering to a subset of voters overrides concern for the welfare of the Cuban or American people, human rights, or the promotion of democracy. Biden needs to have Florida in the bag in 2024. But in Florida, and particularly Miami-Dade, just the idea of talks with Cuba magnetizes the “communist” label and the dialoguero slur for a fanatical block of Cuban-American super voters. Historically, presidential candidates have calculated that they cannot alienate this block.
I question this political calculus. Obama, after all, nearly won a majority of Cuban-Americans against Mitt Romney. What Biden and other Democrats need in order to win elections in the future is to remove once and for all the electoral issue of relations with Cuba. It is only the Republicans who benefit from it, and the fanatics will never be convinced. Those who should not be alienated are those who voted for Obama in 2016 and Biden in 2020. Getting more such voters to the polls is the way to win.
I understand Biden’s current predicament. Besides the American Rescue Plan enacted earlier this year and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework currently moving through Congress, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act are designed to counteract the Republicans’ aggressive attempts to suppress the Democratic vote, and even to put in the hands of partisan hacks the power to overturn elections.
The future of democratic governance in the United States is at stake. Democrats need to be completely unified because of their 50-50 status in the Senate (with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking a tie) and a razor-thin margin in the House. A single rogue Democratic senator could derail the Democrats’ ability to win elections in the future. This puts a tremendous power in the hands of such a rogue senator.
When it comes to Cuba policy, Bob Menendez of New Jersey is that senator. Menendez, a persistent hardliner and advocate of the pressure cooker theory, can blackmail President Biden without even uttering a word or writing an email. Biden is not going to risk his agenda for the sake of an issue of minimal importance for the American electorate, except for those “anti-communist” super voters in South Florida.
This dynamic has existed since 1961, when Cuban-American Republicans started blaming President Kennedy for the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. From the governorship down to the level of dog catcher, Florida candidates want to display their “anti-communism” with harebrained plans to punish Cuba as harshly as possible, even when it means biting our noses to spite our faces. All the candidates actually do, of course, is drink Cuban coffee at photo-ops and utter nonsense about liberating Cuba. But the result is an embargo that devastates the Cuban people, prevents companies from fully pursuing their business interests on the island, and is a violation of Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the right to travel, none of which has engendered any “democracy,” human rights, or welfare of the people.
Every election cycle, Democrats are placed on the defensive. They may not, in good conscience, support the absurdities of our Cuba “policy,” but many fear to contradict the false narrative of an obedient media, painting Cuba as a Stalinist gulag, which prevents a detente. The same story happened with China before Nixon’s trip in 1972. China used to be demonized, but in the blink of an eye it became a respectable trading partner, and the media started depicting it as the great millenary civilization that it is.
Cuba does not brook dissent, and its economy is in shambles, in equal parts because of the continuing hostility of the United States and the ideological rigidity of its government, but it is not hell on earth. It’s nowhere near the top of the horror or poverty scales compared to many other countries that enjoy American support. In fact, the worst human rights abuses committed on the island have occurred at Guantanamo’s naval base.
Still, in recent demonstrations in Miami, hundreds of people were calling for another United States intervention on the island. The mayor of Miami, mindless about international law and the inevitable human suffering and horrific destruction that would follow, called for airstrikes on Havana. The mayor and the demonstrators have no knowledge, apparently, of the history of the three American occupations of Cuba between 1898 and 1922, as well as other interventions, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion, and their consequences. They don’t understand Cuban nationalism or how a foreign invasion tends to unite people against the invaders, as it happened at the Bay of Pigs. They fancy themselves followers of José Martí, but ignore what he wrote to his friend, Manuel Mercado, the day before he was killed in battle in Dos Ríos in 1895: “[It] is my duty . . . to timely prevent with the independence of Cuba that the United States spread through the Antilles, and with that greater force, on our lands of [Latin] America. All I have done so far, and will do, is for that.”
Cuba has gone through worse and its government still survives. The pressure cooker that has been boiling slowly for decades is not going to explode, despite wishful thinking and distorted reporting of the Patria y Vida and San Isidro movements, justified as they may be. What will surely happen is that Republicans will continue to have a convenient narrative to exploit and hard-liners like Bob Menendez will be able to blackmail progressives in every election. It’s time to end that vicious cycle by fully normalizing relations and making Cuba a non-issue. If we help the Cuban people live better lives, allow American businesses to do their capitalist magic, legalize all travel, and remove barriers to Cuba’s participation in the world’s economy, it is likely democracy, human rights, and the welfare of the people will grow––just not regime change, because only the Cubans can do that. That would be good for Cuba, the United States, and Democrats.