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Looking for Cuba on the Campaign Trail

By Lawrence Gutman

In his closing statement at the Republican presidential debate on Nov. 10, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas alluded to a transformative episode in his family history. After supporting the armed struggle against Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s, the Senator’s father fled Cuba and became a staunch critic of Fidel Castro and lifelong advocate for individual freedom. 

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida also addressed his family’s departure from Cuba during the Batista dictatorship. Like Cruz, Rubio cited his parents’ fight to achieve the American Dream as his inspiration for seeking the presidency. Yet unlike Cruz, who emphasized his father’s ideological rebirth, Rubio cited his parents’ economic struggles to frame his discussion of the Cuban-American experience. 

As political origin stories go, Cruz and Rubio’s narratives are especially compelling (if somewhat contested). Equally compelling is the fact that two Cuban-Americans currently occupy the top tier of candidates for the GOP nomination. After decades of engagement between party activists and the exile community, two sons of the movement are poised to compete for their party’s highest honor during the most significant moment in U.S.-Cuban relations since the early 1960s. 

It is therefore ironic that the 2016 presidential contest has barely engaged the issue of U.S.-Cuban reconciliation. In fact, what was recently among the most contentious and poisonous issues in Washington has seemingly become a campaign sleeper. So far there has not been a single Cuba-related question during the four Republican and two Democratic debates, and none of the candidates have voluntarily introduced their positions on re-engagement with Cuba during the proceedings. There have been no political attacks regarding Cuba policy within or between the parties thus far. In fact, talk of Cuba during the 1950s, when Rubio and Cruz’s relatives set sail, has been more prominent than talk of Cuba in the present day.

This is not to say the candidates haven’t staked out positions on the future of bilateral ties. Both Rubio and Cruz have long supported the U.S. policy of diplomatic and economic isolation, oppose the Obama Administration’s normalization agenda in no uncertain terms, and have vowed to block the confirmation of a U.S. ambassador to Cuba. This is all not to mention Rubio’s recent op-eds for The New York Times and CNN.

Yet neither candidate has put the future of bilateral relations anywhere near the front and center of their national appearances or their campaigns. The topic has been equally downplayed by their competitors. Jeb Bush, who cultivated close ties with embargo supporters in the Cuban-American community during his tenure as governor of Florida, has largely remained silent on the relationship during his campaign. In a radio interview last June, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina vowed that she would close the recently opened Cuban embassy as president, yet hasn’t said much else about the ongoing trade talks. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson openly opposes normalization on the grounds that “regime change” will transpire once Raul Castro passes on. The candidates may not be blank slates on Cuba, but they’re not exactly clamoring to highlight their views and differences with each other.

The Democratic side has been relatively quiet and non-combative as well. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and, especially, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders have argued forcefully for repealing the embargo and restoring full trade relations in line with Obama Administration goals. Yet, as trade discussions move forward and U.S. investors assess the growth potential of Cuban markets, neither candidate is taking the lead in pushing for tighter economic integration. And neither is focusing on Republican opposition to the shift toward détente. This is surprising given that repealing the embargo and restoring U.S.-Cuban trade have majority support among all sectors of the U.S. electorate, and that strong public support for reconciliation would potentially mitigate some unrelated policy differences between the campaigns and the White House that have concerned Obama supporters.

It would Cuba is simply too sleepy a topic to generate much attention in the 2016 election cycle. Enter Donald Trump. Arguing “50 years is enough” but that “we should have made a better deal,” the current Republican frontrunner supports restored trade and stands in opposition to his fellow GOP candidates. But the fact that Republican campaigns desperately seeking an anti-Trump strategy haven’t emphasized the policy difference may be a tacit acknowledgement that they’re on the weaker side of the issue. Further, Trump’s reluctance to highlight Cuba with his characteristic bravura (surely, there’s a Trump Havana and Trump Veradero resort in development) may reflect that endorsing White House objectives—even indirectly—on Cuba may harm him with some GOP primary voters.

Perhaps the dynamic will change as the primaries approach. With cruise ships set to sail between Miami and Havana this January, word that Cuban and U.S. officials are poised to announce a deal on direct flights, and the first anniversary of the December 17 announcement of bilateral diplomacy rapidly approaching, it may be increasingly tough to ignore U.S.-Cuban relations as the campaigns intensify. In April, when I began discussing the reconciliation process in this blog, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York was preparing to lead a historic trade delegation in Havana. Today, with the first anniversary of bilateral talks less than one month away, Texas Governor Greg Abbott arrives in Havana for a similar delegation. Though the ideological gap between Governors Cuomo and Abbott could hardly be greater, both leaders appear to be on the same page regarding the benefits of trade across the Florida Straits. 

But they’re not running for president. 

*****

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Lawrence Gutman has conducted research on governance and foreign investment in Cuba as a Fulbright Hays Fellow and Tinker Foundation Fellow. He holds an M.A. in Latin American history from the University of Texas at Austin, and is based in New York. He tweets @lawrencegutman.

[Photos courtesy of  Gage Skidmore]

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