The U.S. embargo of Cuba is pretty inexplicable. We have close relations with Viet Nam. We may have more direct connections with North Korea than we do with Cuba. Why have we continued this ridiculous embargo and non-recognition so long? Fidel tossed Batista (and the Mob) out in 1959. That was 55 years ago.
Because of Florida, that’s why. Specifically because of Florida on two days every four years. One of those days is the Republican presidential primary. The other is the day we vote for president. By an accident of political geography, it’s been impossible for a presidential candidate to say that as president he would lift the embargo and exchange ambassadors with Cuba without committing political suicide.
There are a lot of Cubans in Florida, a million of them, and most of them in the greater Miami area. The vast majority of them came to America as refugees or are the children or grandchildren of refugees. Some came immediately after the Revolution, many fleeing for their lives ahead of Che’s execution squads. Some dribbled in later, defecting or escaping. And many were dumped in Florida by Fidel himself during the Mariel Boatlift. US law gives asylum and a fast track to citizenship to any Cuban who appears on our shores or at our airports. (Compare with Haitians who, not having a communist government, are sent back to Haiti if caught.) The result of this open arms policy has been a large voting bloc in the state of Florida who have one issue and one issue only–their loathing of Fidel Castro. Well there are other issues, but toss Cuba into the mix they suddenly have just one issue. That is a lot of voters voting on just one issue, so many voters that all by themselves they can turn an election into a victory for the candidate who says what they want to hear about Cuba.
Now it starts to get complicated. The electoral college, that inane fossil invented back in 1787 to get the constitution ratified by all thirteen colonies, elects the president based on the votes of the electors of each state. The number of elector per state is equal to the number of congressmen plus the two senators. Almost every state is winner take all–that is whoever gets the most votes in the election gets all of the electoral votes. (It’s an archaic system, infuriating, an embarrassment, but we seem to be stuck with it.) Florida is a big state. It has a lot of electoral votes. I believe only Texas and California and New York have more. And since New York and California always vote Democratic and Texas always votes Republican, that makes Florida the largest number of electoral votes that either side have a shot at winning in one state. So many electoral votes, in fact, that whoever wins Florida tends to win the presidency. The Republicans can’t win the presidency at all without Florida. The Democrats can finesse a win without Florida, but it’s a must win for the Republicans. And Florida is complicated…the northern third is majority Republican, the lower third majority Democratic, and in between it’s mixed up, voting one way or the other. The Democrats win Florida by weakening the Republican base, getting less Republicans to vote. The Republicans win by getting every Republican to vote. Cuban Americans, though in the southern third of Florida, and because they hate Castro so much, are generally Republican. Republicans need to get them to the polls in big numbers. They are an essential part of any Republican strategy for winning Florida. And there is only one way to get Cuban Americans to the polls in big numbers. You have to play the Fidel card. You have to rant and rave about Castro like his continued existence is the most dangerous thing facing America. That a communist Cuba is an existential threat to freedom and Democracy. You have to pull out every cold war cliché in the Republican paranoia playbook. And if a Republican is craven enough–the Bay of Pigs will be avenged!–he can get the Cubans out to the polls in a big way, cursing Fidel and waving little American flags. And that is how Republicans win Florida, and win the presidency. They talk trash about Fidel and insinuate conspiracies between Democrats and communists to end the embargo. That is why, every October in a presidential election year, Republicans appear on Miami television stations to talk about Fidel Castro. They need those Cuban votes. And Democrats have to downplay any talk of lifting the Embargo to avoid firing up the Cubans so they rush out to vote for the Republican in even greater numbers. The Democratic nominee tiptoes around the Cuban-American voters while the Republican throws them raw meat.
Of course it won’t be the first time that the Republican presidential nominee hated Castro that election year. That same Republican would have already been on those same Miami television stations talking about Fidel Castro back in March with all the other Republican candidates for president. They came out of the New Hampshire primary in February, where no one talks about Castro, and into South Carolina, where maybe Castro came up in passing. Then comes Super Tuesday, with a whole mess of primaries on the same day, and the Republican presidential candidates are racing from state to state campaigning and making media appearances and finally focusing in Florida in a big way because there are so many delegates at stake, far more than probably any other state on Super Tuesday. Each candidate has very little time to make their case and get supporters to the polls. Miami is like a magnet, all these Cuban-American Republicans, and all you have to do is be the one who hates Castro the most. One after another the various Republican candidates appear on Miami television, and man do they hate Castro. Some even hate Castro in Spanish. They pose waving little Cuba Libre flags. Cuba Libre they say. They sway to the salsa band, eat some flan. They are all about Cuba. They better be. They won’t win the primary without the Cuban vote, and Florida being a winner take all states with their Republican delegates, whoever wins Florida might just have the nomination sewn up. So each Republican candidate winds up working Miami like crazy, trying to get the Cuban vote on Super Tuesday. Any Republican honest or foolhardy enough to even hint at normalizing relations with Cuba would be beaten because the Cubans would vote for the Republican who was most hardline on Cuba. Indeed, often Republicans wind up their Super Tuesday campaigns in Miami, speaking Spanish and eating flan and hating Castro.
And then after the convention the Republican nominee–who in all likelihood had won the Cuban vote in the primary–couldn’t dare hedging even a smidge on his anti-Castro statements for fear that his supporters, outraged at his betrayal would stay home on election day. So there he is again in October, walking the streets of Miami waving a Cuba Libre flag and eating more flan. He hates Castro he says again in bad Spanish, hates him more than anything. In fact, more often than not the hoarse and exhausted Republican candidate finishes up the campaign in November with a couple stops in Florida, including Miami. Cuba Libre he says, holding one last dish of flan.
It’s hard to imagine another ethnic group living in one place that has had such a profound and decisive effect on presidential elections and on one issue and one issue alone. It’s an accident of political geography, a battleground state of singular importance in both the Republican party nomination race and in the general election, a state evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans and thus winnable by either, and a state that can sew up both the Republican nomination and the election of a Republican president, but only with the fervent support of the state’s Cuban Americans. And what makes fervent voters of those Cuban Americans? Fidel Castro. They hate him, and the Republican who appears to hate him as much as they do gets their votes. It’s simple, logical, and has kept us in a cold war with Cuba long past the end of the Soviet Union and even communism itself.
Of course I’ve over simplified the story and left out a lot of variables. But I think I’ve gotten the gist of it across. And it’s beginning to change. There aren’t many Cubans showing up on our beaches anymore, the original hardliners are dying off and the children and especially the grandchildren have been assimilated into American culture now. Cuba is simply not as important to them as it was to their grandfathers. They see other issues. They don’t vote as a bloc. Many register as Democrats. Worse still, for Republicans, they are offended by the Republican’s anti-Hispanic rhetoric. They, after all, were immigrants. They spoke Spanish. They don’t like being called wetbacks. A lot of Republican rank and file don’t seem to want Cubans in their party at all.
Obama, I’m sure, carefully calculated the political risks for Democrats in Florida in 2016. A solid Republican win in Florida would almost assuredly mean a Republican president. But looking at 2008 and 2012, the Cuban votes weren’t there in such huge numbers for Republicans. Not like before. Cuban Americans are no longer the monolithic voting bloc they once were. They are still majority Republican, but not enough to put a Republican over the top by themselves. Republicans still have to play by the old rules, because they need those Cuban-American votes desperately, it’s just there aren’t as many of those votes as before. At last, it seems, a Democratic president can do the right thing without handing the White House to another Bush. It’s about time. The embargo is an absurdity, counter productive. Why hand Cuba over to Chinese trade? It’s just off our coast. We should be going there, and the Cubans should be visiting here, and not just as defectors and boat people. Guys like the two in the picture above can rant and rave all they want. At least they aren’t murdering people now. They used to. Being a Cuban in Miami and saying the embargo should be lifted could get you killed. Alpha 66 were scary guys. Now they’re old and their grandchildren want to go to Cuba on vacation.
And who knows, a Cuban Spring might happen. This could be the thing that opens up Cuba politically, and opens up its prison gates and lets the political prisoners go free. Cuba is the last dictatorship in the western hemisphere. That can’t last now. One party rule will go the way of the wind.