WSJ: Cuban Embargo Punctuates Florida’s Presidential Politics

Friday, November 28, 2014
In The Wall Street Journal:

Cuban Embargo Punctuates Florida’s Presidential Politics

Both Parties Traditionally Court State’s Large Cuban-American Community—Now With Heightened Importance

For decades, Democrats and Republicans with sights on the White House have trekked to the heart of the Cuban-American community in Florida to declare their support for the U.S. trade embargo against the island. No candidate has won the state otherwise.

This staple of presidential politics in the nation’s largest swing state is taking on heightened importance as the 2016 presidential field takes shape.

Democrat Hillary Clinton , who backed the trade ban in her 2008 campaign, reversed her position earlier this year, calling for an end to the sanctions. Her potential GOP opponents include Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, both sons of Cuban immigrants for whom maintaining sanctions against the Castro regime is not just political, but personal.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, once dubbed the state’s first Cuban-American governor because of his kinship with the community and fluency in Spanish, is expected to defend the embargo in a speech on Tuesday, marking a contrast with Mrs. Clinton as he nears a decision on a 2016 campaign.

While Cuba policy is unlikely to be a major issue in the presidential contest, it has the potential to resonate in Florida in a way not seen since Ronald Reagan’s anti-communist fervor rallied Cuban-Americans in the 1980s.

“Hillary is going to be testing history and political reality in Florida and highlighting a contrast with Republicans that we haven’t seen before,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, a director of the U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC, the pro-embargo group hosting Mr. Bush in South Florida on Tuesday.

Some allies of Mrs. Clinton are already expressing qualms about how a presidential bid by Mr. Bush would make it harder to lock down the state’s bounty of 29 electoral votes. Those who hoped Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist could offer Mrs. Clinton some political cover among Cuban-Americans—he came out in favor of lifting the embargo in February—were disappointed when he lost to Republican Gov. Rick Scott in the Nov. 4 election.

“Hillary will be a formidable candidate, but I think her position on the embargo could heighten the intensity against her,” said former Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, a Republican and longtime ally of Mr. Bush who described him as the first Cuban-American governor when they addressed the U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC in 2006.

To embargo proponents such as Mr. Martinez, who fled Cuba as a child and rose to become the first Cuban-American senator, lifting sanctions would reward a repressive regime that denies basic human rights and civil liberties.

Critics of the trade ban say that after half a century, it’s time to try a different approach. In a June appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations, Ms. Clinton called the embargo “Castro’s best friend,” because, she said, the regime uses it as a scapegoat for the island’s problems.

In her memoir published earlier this year, Mrs. Clinton said that as secretary of state she urged President Barack Obama to consider lifting the embargo. “It wasn’t achieving our goals, and it was holding back our broader agenda across Latin America,” she wrote.

Democrats dismiss the notion that Mrs. Clinton’s position would be a political liability in Florida, should she run for president. They point to changing demographics and public opinion. Support for the embargo has been steadily declining among Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County, from 87 percent in 1991 to 48 percent today, according to polling by Florida International University.

“Hillary is never going to get the hardliners to vote for her, but there is a new generation of younger Cuban-Americans who do not have that vitriolic emotion tied to Cuba,” said Democratic consultant Ana Cruz, who helped run Mrs. Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign in Florida, where she overwhelmingly won the Democratic primary.

The state is home to three-quarters of the nation’s estimated 2 million Cuban-Americans. A Pew Research Center analysis of 2013 survey data found that less than half of Cuban voters nationwide lean Republican, down from 64% a decade ago. Over the same period, the share of Cubans who favor the Democratic Party doubled from 22% to 44%.

Exit polling in 2012 showed President Obama winning 49 percent of the Cuban vote, a high-water mark for a Democrat.

“The Cuban-American population is starting to look more like other Latino populations, and that has major implications, because it changes the political calculus for winning the state,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center.

No major Republican presidential candidate has yet to come out in favor of lifting the embargo. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee , who as governor had advocated ending the trade ban to expand opportunities for farmers in his state, changed his mind during his 2008 presidential campaign. Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan had voted against the embargo but as the vice presidential nominee in 2012 talked about having a change of heart. Messrs. Huckabee and Ryan are both viewed as potential candidates in 2016.

One possible wild card in the nascent GOP field on Cuba policy is Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul , who shares many of the libertarian views espoused by his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul . The elder Paul spoke out against the embargo during his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. Sen. Paul’s office said he had not recently taken a public position on the embargo, a policy void unlikely to last if he were to visit Florida as a presidential candidate.