Changing America's Cuba policy has traditionally been considered electoral suicide for aspiring politicians. Their thinking has been based on a simple premise.
Florida - and the state's 29 electoral votes - has played kingmaker in the last five elections. And good luck taking Florida without taking a hard line on Cuba. South Florida is loaded with senior citizens and is home to the largest Cuban population outside of Havana - neither group will stand for going soft on the Castro regime.
Republicans who break ranks can look forward to a quick death in the primaries. Democrats who suggest a change of tone will get pilloried for 'appeasing a dictatorship' by the GOP.
But not so fast.
While the previous paragraphs have summed up conventional thinking on America's Cuba policy to date, new research from the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center suggests that U.S. public opinion has quietly shifted. Americans look ready to support a more open posture towards Cuba that includes steps to normalizing Washington's relationship with Havana.
Most surprisingly, support for changing America's Cuba policy remained high among the demographic groups typically associated with supporting the country's hard line stance - Hispanics/Latinos, Republicans and senior citizens. According to the report, 56 percent of Americans support normalizing relations with or engaging directly with Cuba. The number jumps to 63 percent among Floridians and 62 percent among Latinos. That's right, Floridians and Latinos are more likely to support improving relations with Cuba more than Americans as a whole. In addition, 52 percent of Republicans favor a change of policy towards normalization/engagement.
Your writer attended a symposium hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs last month where co-pollster Paul Maslin participated in a panel discussion with heavy hitters including Atlantic Council director Peter Schechter; former Obama administration senior adviser and current University of Chicago Institute of Politics president, David Axelrod; and Alberto Coll, principal deputy assistant secretary for the defense department during the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations.
Washington's political intelligentsia has long favored a different approach to Cuba. Axelord, Coll and Maslin made quick work covering the main arguments for change during the symposium.
Real Politik also supports normalizing relations with Cuba for the following reasons:
1) To deprive Castro regime of any remaining legitimacy
2) To neutralize an international political liability for the United States
3) America's policy for the past 50 years has not done the job
Taking back a gift to the Castros
Despite more than 50 years of the embargo - called el bloqueo in Spanish - the Castro regime has survived without serious challenge. According to Coll, ending the bloqueo would deprive the Castro regime of a popular rallying cry against imperialismo yanqui and draw average Cubans closer to America through commercial and economic ties. Better relations would also enable the U.S. to have more visibility into - and influence over - the post-Castro regime when Raul Castro is no longer in the picture.
Ending the double talk on human rights
While much opposition to improving relations with Cuba has rightly centered on the Castro regime's horrific human rights abuses, Coll noted that America has normal commercial and diplomatic relations with several countries - such as China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and Jordan - with equally dismal human rights records. The panelists also pointed out that Cuba is 1 of 4 countries on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism - the other three are Sudan, Syria and Iran. Unlike those countries, Cuba has not initiated an act of terror against the United States since the Cuba Missile Crisis of 1962. These inconsistencies are cheap political fodder that America's enemies can use to question U.S. policies in other parts of the world.
Closing the gap with Latin American friends
What's more, America's Cuba policy has created a policy gap that separates America from other regional powerhouses in Latin America, such as Mexico and Brazil, that have consistently recognized the Castro regime. This opening has been exploited by U.S. foes, mostly recently Venezuela, to antagonize successive U.S. administrations. Normalizing Cuba policy neutralizes those tactics.
Supporting political courage
If the attitudes described in the Atlantic Council's survey are borne out in practice, U.S. politicians will have the political capital to transform one of the most enduring policy positions of modern politics. Yet, public opinion does not always inspire lawmakers take political risks. As David Axelrod wryly noted during the symposium, there is a reason that "Profiles in Courage" isn't a thicker book.
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