Rubio Discovers Void, Proposes More of What Created It

July 25, 2014

In 1992, Brigadier General Simon P. Worden, then serving at the Department of Defense, coined the phrase “self-licking ice cream cones” to describe a curiosity of Washington bureaucratic life.  This is defined as a process that offers few benefits and exists primarily to justify its own existence.

The U.S. embargo against Cuba is a classic example of the self-licking ice cream cone at work.  When champions of the hardline policy identify problems created by the embargo, they argue for increasing the sanctions that triggered the problems in the first place.

Consider Senator Marco Rubio’s essay, “Marco Rubio on the Russian Threat to the Western Hemisphere,” published last week in Power Line.  Russia, like other nations, Rubio explains, has leapt into a “leadership void” in Latin America -

The Obama Administration’s failure to pursue a consistent, meaningful and proactive strategy in Latin America has left a leadership void that not only Russia but also China, Iran, North Korea and others have been able to exploit. In recent years, we’ve seen each of these nations move aggressively to enhance their alliances in the region, and expand their defense and intelligence relationships.

Rubio seems to be living in a world in which the U.S. can control events in our hemisphere, or at least act as gatekeeper, determining which nations can enter Latin America and for what purpose; the kind of Monroe Doctrine world that has been declared deadover and over again.

As we report below, the President of China, Xi Jinping, wrapped up his tour of Latin America this week with three days of activities in Cuba, culminating with his visit to the Moncada Barracks where the Cuban Revolution dates its start, 61 years ago tomorrow.   But Xi, as AFP reports, also “made a point during his tour of reaching out to countries often shunned by US and European investors, including Argentina, Cuba and Venezuela.”

President Xi came to the region with other leaders of the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) for a summit, during which they announced the creation of a $50 billion bank for infrastructure projects and a $100 billion crisis reserve fund described as a “mini-IMF.”

German media described the purpose of creating banks to fund public works and credit in the region as offsetting “the clout of western financial institutions” as well as bolstering investment in infrastructure.

This is especially meaningful to Cuba.  The Helms-Burton law, enacted in 1996, requires the United States government to oppose Cuba’s admission to the International Monetary Fund and every other relevant international financial institution – such as the International Development Association and the Inter-American Development Bank – until the Cuban government is replaced.

In the meanwhile, the Obama Administration is aggressively enforcing sanctions on a global basis against financial institutions that do business with Cuba.  Small wonder, then, that “Cuban official media are closely following the creation of a new $100 billion development bank that may offer lower-cost lending alternatives outside the realm of Washington and Wall Street,” as reported by CubaStandard.com this week.

Helms-Burton also requires the U.S. to oppose and vote against Cuba’s entry into the Organization of American States.  Barring Cuba from the OAS also results in Cuba’s exclusion from meetings of the Summit of the Americas.  This, in turn, has led both to threats by nations in the Hemisphere to boycott the next summit scheduled to take place in Panama in 2015 and to the strengthening of Latin American institutions and initiatives that exclude the U.S. and Canada.  The self-licking ice cream cone licks on.

Paradoxically, the BRICS bank breakthrough led former President Fidel Castro to write about the summit’s concluding statement, the Fortaleza Declaration, in a reflection which praised the leaders because they recognized “the important role which state enterprises play in the economy, as well as small and medium sized companies, as creators of employment and wealth.”

While Fidel Castro was praising the private sector, Rubio was turning red at Russia’s reemergence as a player in Cuba, as we discussed recently here and here.  Rather than conceding the role that U.S. sanctions played in creating the void that the BRICS were filling this month, the Senator from Florida suggested that we double-down instead.  To punish Cuba for welcoming Putin back, Rubio writes:

“[The] U.S. must continue denying the Castro regime access to money it uses to oppress the Cuban people and invest in foreign policy initiatives that actively challenge and undermine U.S. interests. The Obama Administration should roll back the economic benefits it has extended to the Cuban regime, in the form of expanded U.S. travel and remittances…”

By this logic, if hardline policies haven’t freed Alan Gross, haven’t stopped oil development in the Gulf of Mexico, haven’t blocked Cuba from hosting peace talks between Colombia and the FARC, haven’t brought the Cuban economy to its knees, and haven’t rallied Latin American nations to our side, sanctions supporters have just one answer: tighten them more.

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A Single Standard of Justice

July 18, 2014

In the news summary that follows, you will find reports about a new investigation into the USAID Cuban Twitter scandal, the growing impact of the increasingly tight enforcement of U.S. sanctions against Cuba and other nations on banks and global commerce, and the resumption of peace talks in Havana between Colombia and the FARC.

But first, we wanted to acknowledge what is unfolding in and near “a large wheat field dotted with purple flowers and Queen Anne’s lace,” in the lyrical prose of Sabrina Tavernise, a reporter for the New York Times.  This is where wreckage from Malaysia Flight 17 and the remains of some of its 298 crewmember and passengers came to rest in Eastern Ukraine after it was shot down a little more than a day ago.

The victims included 80 children, three of whom were infants, a number of AIDS researchers and activists, the spokesman for the World Health Organization, and a graduate student from Indiana University, who was a chemist and a member of the IU rowing team.

The circumstances surrounding the shoot-down of this airliner are reminiscent of an earlier tragedy during the Cold War, when a Korean Airlines Flight was shot down in 1983 by Soviet fighter pilots. That resulted in the loss of 269 people, including a Member of the U.S. Congress.

Today, our memories were also stirred by a catastrophe that took place on October 6, 1976; not half a world away, but here in the Americas. Then, like now, the victims, 48 passengers and 25 crew members, were civilians; many were also young, including all 24 members of the Cuban Fencing Team, five Guyanese medical students, the wife of a diplomat and others.

Their Cubana de Aviacion Flight 455 had just taken off from Barbados when at least one bomb exploded and knocked the plane out of the sky.  This was, as Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archives has often said, the first mid-air bombing of a civilian airliner in the Western Hemisphere.  All aboard – 57 Cubans, 11 Guyanese, and five North Koreans – were lost.

As we prepared this publication, the UN Security Council issued a statement calling for a “full, thorough and independent investigation” of the Malaysian airliner tragedy. Leaders from around the world called for an investigation and for accountability.

In the 38 years since the bombing of Flight 455, there has been no accountability for the loss of life; the families of the victims are not even mentioned in the news coverage of Malaysian Flight 17, as broadcast and print journalists recall similar incidents in the past.

Yet, Luis Posada Carriles, one of the two masterminds behind the bombing of the Air Cubana flight, continues to live and walk free in Miami, despite outstanding extradition requests from Cuba and Venezuela, which have yet to receive the response they merit from the U.S. government.

In some quarters, it will doubtless be controversial for us to remember that justice has still not been served in the case of Flight 455.

But our interest is in reforming Cuba policy to help the United States get past the double-standards that were deemed acceptable during the Cold War, but which are injurious to the national interest today, and adopt a single standard of justice in cases like this, now and into the future.  The dignity of the victims in these cases demands nothing less.

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Putin in Cuba, Groundhog Day in America

July 11, 2014

As Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Havana, and builds closer ties with Cuba’s senior leadership, it begs the question, “Haven’t we seen this movie before?”

Our six-decade stalemate with Cuba started at the height of the Cold War.  Cuba established formal diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union on May 8, 1960.  Washington, in turn, severed ties with Havana on January 3, 1961. By the time Vladimir Putin was a ten-year-old and Barack Obama was an infant, we had already lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the establishment of the Lourdes signals intelligence center near Havana, and more, which brought the heat of the Cold War within a hundred miles of our shores.

Back then, the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations decided it just would not do to have what was called a “Soviet puppet” in what some still call our “backyard.”  President Kennedy, as Cuba scholar Daniel Erikson wrote, reinterpreted the Monroe Doctrine “to support American efforts to contain the expansion of Soviet influence into the hemisphere.”

From the Bay of Pigs invasion to diplomatic isolation to the tightest economic sanctions imposed on Cuba, driving the Soviets out and punishing the Cubans for inviting them in has been what U.S. policy was all about.  This was matched, year after year, by Cuba’s resolute resistance to whatever wallops Washington delivered, sustained for a decade by Soviet subsidies.

The fall of the Berlin Wall led, ultimately, to the collapse of Cuba’s economy.  When the Soviet Union broke-up in 1991, Cuba lost annual assistance estimated at approximately $4.5 billion. Its economy contracted by 35% more or less overnight.  Public transport essentially ground to a halt.  Calorie consumption in the average Cuban’s diet fell 30%.  Export earnings fell 80%.  By January 1, 1992, when the Soviets cut off all military and economic assistance to Cuba, the allies had gone through a nasty break-up.

This was the moment to declare victory. With Russia dislodged from Cuba, the U.S. could have reinvigorated diplomacy and reached a modus vivendi with Cuba.  The objectives of our Cold War era policy having been satisfied, we could have even brought some long overdue tranquility to our relationships in Latin America.

Instead, U.S. policymakers decided to try and finish the job, passing the Cuba Democracy Act, which tightened the embargo screws even further, with the expectation that Cuba’s economic travails would do Cuba’s government in. It could have been called “The Never Miss an Opportunity to Miss an Opportunity Act of 1992.”

What happened?  Well, Cuba’s government didn’t fall under the weight of the U.S. embargo.  Raúl and Fidel Castro organized a peaceful transition of power. Our insistence on shutting Cuba out of regional forums like the OAS backfired on us.  Now, a little more than two decades later, Russia is back.

Without apparent irony, Yuri Ushakov, a presidential aide, told a reporter that the Kremlin considers Cuba to be “one of Russia’s ancient partners in Latin America.”  To advance that partnership, even before President Putin landed on Cuban soil, Russia agreed to write off about $32 billion in debt Cuba owed to the Soviet Union.

This is a big deal.  The Voice of Russia news service references one analyst, Caroline Kennedy (no, we’re not kidding), Head of the School of Politics, Philosophy, and International Studies at the University of Hull, as it observed, “the writing-off of the historic debt is about trying to reinvigorate a relationship that had fallen into abeyance in the 1990s – something Putin himself has said that he regrets in recent speeches.”

In addition to writing off Cuba’s debt, Russia has been written into Cuba’s strategy for recovering oil from the vast offshore reserves it has sought to exploit in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico since the 1990s.  As Bloomberg reports, during Putin’s visit, two Russian state oil producers “plan to sign an agreement with Cuban company Cupet SA to carry out joint operations in Cuba’s offshore areas.”

It might interest you to know that on Putin’s last trip to Cuba fourteen years ago, he pulled the plug on the Lourdes signal intelligence center as his personal affirmation that the Cold War was over, a gesture he believed was snubbed and, as Progreso Weekly reported, he also reviewed the status of Cuba’s backlogged debt payments for previously acquired Soviet loans.

We have seen this movie before.  It’s called “Groundhog Day.”  In that film, history on February 2nd repeats itself day after day until our love-smitten TV weatherman sets aside his self-destructive behavior and ends the tragic time loop by repairing his relationships and doing right in the world.   The cold of winter gives way, finally, to spring.

“Keep in mind that when Castro came to power,” President Obama said last year in Miami, “I was just born. So the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.”

Whether it’s inviting Cuba to join the Summit of the Americas, engaging with Cuba directly to protect the coast of Florida from the potential risk posed by a Ruso-Cuban drilling accident, or using his ample executive authority to go bolder and deeper, surely President Obama can summon the imagination and courage, not to drive Russia out, but to get our country back in the game.

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Democracy: Is there an app for that?

July 3, 2014

We are on the cusp of our July 4th holiday here in the U.S., when we remember the revolutionary origins of our country and celebrate our independence with baseball, beer, and displays of fireworks accompanied by a spirited rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

Because we’re eager to finish the work week, we’re circulating our Cuba Central News Blast a little early so you can read the news now and all of us can join the party.

We start with Chip Beck, a U.S. citizen with ties to the CIA and the Navy.  According to this blog post on Wikistrat, between 1998 and 2001, while he was working as a freelance journalist, Beck traveled to Havana and received significant cooperation from the Cuban government as he investigated the disappearance of Americans in Asia, Africa, and Central America during the Cold War.  It’s a great story.

In Beck’s account of his five trips to the island, he describes familiar sounding offers by Havana to sit down and negotiate with Washington without preconditions, so long as the U.S. recognized Cuba as a sovereign nation.  He concludes by quoting a conversation he had on the Malecón with a Cuban he identifies only as a single mom with a college degree.

She said, “If you tell a Cuban what to do, he will do the opposite just to spite you. If you [Americans] stop telling us what to do, things will work out exactly like you want.”

Needless to say, this was very good advice which, a dozen years later, we’re still waiting for the U.S. government to heed.

Instead, President Obama, the 11th president in charge of foreign relations with Cuba’s revolutionary government, pursues the stale and failed policy he inherited from his predecessors.  On one track, he has made some important moves to promote two-way travel, family reconciliation, and modest forms of bilateral cooperation.  But, on the second track, he aggressively enforces the embargo with its international overreach to shut down Cuba’s access to finance and global trade.

As of last week, for example, his Administration had already imposed penalties totaling $4.9 billion against 22 banks for violating U.S. sanctions against doing business with Cuba.  That record was shattered by a penalty meted out against BNP Paribas, which pled guilty to two charges, agreed to pay a nearly $9 billion fine, and accepted bans for one and two years respectively on certain dollar clearing and processing activities – all for violations of sanctions against countries including Cuba.  This led the Bank of Ireland, which has “long-standing customers with legitimate business interests in Cuba,” to tell them it would no longer clear their transactions to or from Cuba, as the Independent reported.

At a time when tens of thousands of Cubans (like our friend Barbara Fernández) are working hard to take advantage of economic reforms – in cooperatives and private businesses – in order to live more prosperous and independent lives, tightening the screws on a policy that disregards their nation’s sovereignty and increases their daily struggles makes no sense.

Eric Schmidt, Google’s Executive President, who just wrapped up a visit to Cuba during which he voiced support for an open Internet, underscored the contradictory goals of U.S. policy in a blog post about his trip.

“The ‘blockade’,” he writes, “makes absolutely no sense to US interests: if you wish the country to modernize the best way to do this is to empower the citizens with smart phones (there are almost none today) and encourage freedom of expression and put information tools into the hands of Cubans directly.”

We were in Cuba at the same time as Google and heard Cubans express similar ideas.  They want an Internet opening to complement their economic opening.  They want workers, especially working women, to be able to get online and connect to their jobs from home.  They want a more lively public debate. Just as Cubans are now free to travel overseas, they want to be able to access more information without having to leave.  Dumping restrictions – whether on technology, U.S. travel, or finance – imposed by the U.S. would put what Cubans want in greater alignment with the ostensible goals of U.S. policy and help them get it.

Writing about the architects of our nation and their ideals, former Senator Gary Hart described what the Founders saw in history’s great republics: civic duty, popular sovereignty, resistance to corruption, and a sense of the commonwealth; what we own in common that binds us together.  Every time we visit the island, we see Cubans who share these ideals as well.

July 4th is a great day to celebrate the virtues of our system, which are many, but it can also be an occasion for some humility. In Cuba’s case, that means to stop telling them what to do, and showing respect to Cubans and their ability to figure out their future and how they want to live for themselves.

If you need help figuring out why, when we celebrate Independence Day, we set off fireworks to music commemorating Russia’s defense of Moscow against Napoleon, listen here.

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Washington, Cuba, and the Climate for Dysfunction

June 27, 2014

This headline – “Cuba plans to drill near Keys again in 2015” – helped us clarify the news this week about U.S. policy toward Cuba and the dysfunction that surrounds it.

As David Goodhue, reporting for the Florida Keys Keynoter, explained, Cuba will resume exploratory drilling off the Florida Keys next year.  But, the waters and beaches off Florida are still not protected against oil pollution were a spill to happen as a result.

Although Mexico, the Bahamas, Jamaica, the United States and Cuba signed The Wider Caribbean Region Multilateral Technical Operating Procedures for Offshore Oil Pollution Response earlier this year (essentially a work plan for cooperation if an oil spill exceeds the boundaries of one nation and puts the territorial waters of others at risk), an effective emergency response is far from assured. The embargo remains a barrier to deploying U.S. technology and expertise as part of a timely effort to protect the oceans, fishing stocks, and tourist resources that contribute to Florida’s economy and well-being.

Floridians should already be worried. Many probably read about the report called “Risky Business” released this week that describes how much the Sunshine State is threatened by global warming and rising oceans.  It said, in part, “There is a 1-in-20 chance that more than $346 billion worth of current Florida property will be underwater by the end of the century.”  We know that Florida is already feeling the effects of rising sea waters and the dangers of an inadequate government response.

What is at stake – with oil spills and global warming – is more than just billions in property damage.  We need to protect the oceans because they are sources of food, employment, tourism, recreation, and more. They absorb carbon, which in turn helps dampen warming, and they foster biodiversity, which means they help sustain life.

This is why Secretary of State John Kerry hosted the “Our Ocean” Conference at the State Department this month, and why it was so sensible that Dr. Fabián Pina Amargós, director of Cuba’s Center for Coastal Ecosystems Research was invited to attend, as Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), among others, thought he should.  We do, after all, share an ecosystem and an ocean with Cuba.

Kerry’s conference produced an action plan (details here) whose recommendations are aligned with the agenda for bilateral cooperation that EDF and environmental leaders like Senator Whitehouse want the United States to pursue.  They want Cuba and the U.S. to collaborate and stop overfishing in shared waters, strengthen policies that facilitate two-way scientific research, develop a plan for an international network of protected marine areas, and strengthen cooperation on oil spill prevention and response.

Much of this could be accomplished by executive action, which the White House could put in motion, especially if the U.S. Congress didn’t get in the way.  Good luck with that.

While the Congress did legislate on Cuba policy this week, it was hardly a vote of confidence in engagement with Cuba (or good government for that matter).  The State Department budget written by House Appropriations directs the Secretary of State to cut down on issuing visas for Cuban officials.  It also tells the Department to spend more money on the democracy promotion work in Cuba that resulted in the conviction of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross.

The bill to fund the Treasury Department budget blocks licenses for non-academic educational exchanges and orders Treasury to produce a report in 90 days analyzing trips it has licensed trip to Cuba since 2007 with data specifying the number of travelers, amount of money spent, and more.

The two champions of this bill, Rep. Ander Crenshaw (FL-4) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-25), were clearly fighting the Cold War, not protecting their Florida constituents or the state’s marine environment and coastline, when they shepherded the legislation to passage.

They are among the shrinking number of Floridians who believe that if you give the embargo enough time to work, someday it will.  We don’t believe that.  Neither do majorities in their state, nor do the majority of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade County.

What happens on Cuba defines how the U.S. Capitol is captured by dysfunction.

While Members of Congress prop up the embargo because they want Cuba to fail, Cubans are seizing opportunities created by their country’s economic reforms to try and build more successful lives. While House Members try to stop the State Department from issuing visas, our scientists are trying to increase contacts with their Cuban counterparts to calm and protect the troubled waters between our countries.  While Cuba is poised to drill again in waters close to the Florida Keys, Members of Congress write bills to leave its coast defenseless.

When you think about how useless the embargo has been since it was first imposed by the Kennedy Administration in the 1960s, it was almost funny to read how Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen scolded the Administration for sticking with its “ineffective” Libya policy for three years.

But, for her constituents and their beach front property?  Not so much.

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The Engagement Party

June 20, 2014

These days, the President can’t shake hands with an adversary – much less negotiate freedom for an American prisoner – without being stung by fifties-era fighting words like appeasement.

This week, however, there was more evidence that the President has greater political space to negotiate with Cuba than he might have otherwise thought.

Florida International University, which has tracked opinion in the politically conservative enclave of South Florida since 1991, has just released its 2014 poll testing how Cuban Americans view U.S. policies toward Cuba.

According to FIU’s 2014 surveymajorities of Cuban Americans now support three big changes in U.S. policy – ending the embargoending restrictions on travel, and recognizing Cuba diplomatically – at the highest levels it has ever recorded.

FIU found support for diplomatic recognition among all respondents at 68%; among younger respondents at 90%; among all registered voters at 55%; and among non-registered voters at 83%.  Since the major thrust of U.S. policy has always been to isolate Cuba and stifle contact between our two governments, finding outsized support levels among Cuban Americans for reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba is a really big deal.

We believe, and believe strongly, in the U.S. using diplomacy to end our self-imposed isolation and recognize Cuba.  But even short of normalization, we advocate engagement to help us jointly solve the problems we and Cuba have in common.

During most of the 41 trips to Cuba we’ve hosted, Cuban officials, academics, and others have identified issues – such as law enforcement, terrorism, drug trafficking, and much else – where both countries would benefit by increasing or starting bilateral cooperation.

Our 21st Century Cuba publications zero in on subjects – such as protecting Florida from oil spills, and working with Cuban women as they seek greater economic benefits and autonomy in Cuba’s new era of reform – where the U.S. could collaborate, help Cubans and serve our national interest, if only U.S. policy and sanctions didn’t hold us back.

Last night, as we celebrated our 8th anniversary, CDA honored three allies whose work exemplifies engagement: Wynn Segall, the eminent sanctions lawyer, who has secured the research and people-to-people travel licenses that enable us to visit Cuba; Mario Bronfman of the Ford Foundation, who supported our 21st Century Cuba research program; and Carol Browner, the former EPA administrator, who has joined her leadership on climate change to the cause of engagement with Cuba.

Their actions, to dismantle barriers to collaboration and move relations with Cuba in a more positive direction, are the model for making progress on U.S. policy.  With the FIU survey showing clear and increasing support in South Florida for dealing directly with Cuba, there is no political excuse left to hold the Administration back.

However, due to developments in the case of Alan Gross, there is even greater urgency for them to embrace engagement now.  Mr. Gross was arrested in Cuba in 2009 for regime change activities our government knew to be in violation of Cuban law.  He is in a hospital prison in Havana serving a 15-year sentence.

Since his arrest, our government has primarily called on Cuba to release him unilaterally, and dismissed Cuba’s offers to negotiate a solution that would bring him home.  This strategy has produced nothing.

Dismayed by our government’s disengagement, Alan Gross said in an appeal for help to the White House last fall: “With the utmost respect, Mr. President, I fear that my government — the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare — has abandoned me.”

Having failed to stir action, Mr. Gross went on a hunger strike in April and later threatened to take his life if he found himself in prison by his next birthday.  On Wednesday, we received word that his mother died from cancer, and learned last night that his brother-in-law also passed away this week.

In a statement issued following Gross’s mother’s death, Cuba reiterated its willingness to negotiate, and clearly linked the humanitarian concerns of Alan’s case to the three members of the Cuban Five still in prison here.

Resolving the Gross case is a prerequisite for moving forward on normalizing relations with Cuba, a virtue by itself.  But, fruitful negotiations with Cuba could also restore faith here in presidential leadership and a core purpose of diplomacy: negotiating with our adversaries to get things done.

Consider the case of Colombia.  This week, Juan Manuel Santos won reelection as Colombia’s president after beating Oscar Ivan Zuluaga in a runoff campaign.

Santos put his hold on power at risk and placed his faith in diplomatic negotiations with the FARC to end the civil war that has bloodied his country since 1964. Zuluaga, by contrast, as the Wall Street Journal reports, accused Santos of selling out Colombia at the bargaining table.

Rejecting allegations of appeasement, Santos said, “What is important, as Nelson Mandela said, is what is negotiated at the table.”  Apparently, a majority of Colombians agreed.

What a good reminder to President Obama who, just six months ago, shook hands with Raúl Castro at Mandela’s memorial.

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Lots – we mean LOTS – of polling on Cuba!

June 13, 2014

This week, when the Miami Herald released its survey of 400 registered voters in Miami-Dade County, it contained startling results, including a finding that the Cuba issue is not having much effect on Florida’s race for governor.  (This is not something you would have guessed reading the Herald’s headline: Cuban voters weigh Crist down in Miami-Dade.)

A few days ago, Public Policy Polling released a poll showing a majority of Floridians supporting an end to the embargo.

Next week, the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University will release results from its 2014 survey of Cuban Americans in South Florida.

So, there’s a flood of new data. Since public opinion research had a rocky week in Washington – just ask Rep. Eric Cantor, or, even better, ask his pollster – we thought it would be a good time to look at recent surveys on Cuba policy and think about how public opinion affects public policy.

***

If foreign policy issues turned less on how politicians calculated their domestic political interests and more on how public servants weighed the national interest, U.S. policy toward Cuba would have changed long ago.

After all, Mikhail Gorbachev ended the Cold War before the invention of the Internet. U.S. intelligence agencies, in a report published in 1997, said “Cuba does not pose a significant military threat to the U.S. or to other countries in the region.”  Foreign policy elites – including diplomats known to fear communist influence in the region – recently united behind a letter to President Obama urging meaningful changes in the policy.

As with national experts, public opinion in the U.S. settled the Cuba debate decades ago.  Since 1974, as Gallup reported, “a majority of Americans have consistently said they support establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba, with the exception of one poll conducted in 1996.”

Yet, the policy, conceived in the Cold War, is largely unchanged. This produces truly loopy outcomes – consider a recent House-passed defense bill that prohibits U.S. cooperation with Cuba on efforts to control drug trafficking despite Cuba’s exemplary record in this area – along with the more troubling and continuing U.S. efforts to overthrow Cuba’s government.

Cuba continues to be, as the Atlantic Council says, “the third rail of Latin American foreign policy in the United States,” thanks, as the data consistently shows, to inaccurate positioning of Florida’s importance in electoral politics.

***

Until the 2008 presidential campaign, when Senator Obama promised to reopen family travel to Cuba, and expressed his willingness to negotiate with Cuba’s government, no serious candidate – Democrat or Republican – promised anything less to Florida voters than complete loyalty to the Cuba sanctions agenda.  Until former Secretary Clinton released her memoir last week, no serious contender offered to undo the embargo before declaring for the White House.

The received wisdom for standing behind a failed policy was simple.  Candidates were told they could not win office, nationally or locally in Florida, without carrying the Cuban American community, because it was resolutely opposed to normalizing relations with Cuba’s government.

That is why we suggest paying close attention to the data released this year, this week, and next Tuesday.

In February, the Atlantic Council released a comprehensive survey that found substantial support nationally for normalizing relations with Cuba (56% to 35%) but even greater support in Florida for re-engaging.  Floridians supported normalizing relations by a 63% to 30% margin, and approved of eliminating all restrictions on travel by 67% to 29%.

Public Policy Polling, which conducted a Florida survey this month, recorded 53% of Floridians, including 64% of independents and 57% of Democrats, supporting an end to the embargo with only 22% of respondents in support of maintaining the embargo.

But the bigger news came in a Miami Herald poll, which tested voter preferences in Miami-Dade County for Florida’s upcoming Governor’s race.  As we previously reported, former Governor Charlie Crist astounded observers when he called for ending the embargo and announced plans to visit Cuba in the midst of his campaign against the incumbent Governor Rick Scott.

Crist’s announcements have had no effect on the state’s most feared voters.  Despite losing the county’s Hispanic vote, the Herald reports that Crist leads Governor Scott by a 47%-35% margin; sustained by 84% support among African-American voters, 58% support among “White Anglo” voters, and a 49% to 49% split among voters of Cuban descent born in the U.S.  More telling, 67% of all respondents said that Crist’s Cuba position had no impact on their vote.

Given the link between public opinion in Florida and public policy on Cuba in Washington, these results are really important.

***

In recent years, hardliners have demonstrated they will not give up the perception of their lock on Florida’s votes without a fight.  In 2008, they predicted Obama would lose Florida when he promised to restore family travel.  He won 35% of the Cuban vote, won Florida, won the election, kept his promise, and family visits surged from 50,000 in 2004 to nearly half-a-million in 2013.

When the President restored people-to-people travel in 2011, Capitol Hill Cubans called it a sure way to lose votes. After he won Florida by a larger margin in 2012 than he did 4 years before, and split the Cuban vote with Governor Romney, Mauricio Claver-Carone said, “I have a problem with exit polls,” and his organization later issued a report aimed at disproving Cuban American support for the President.  When the Atlantic Council poll demonstrated vast support in Florida for changing the policy, he and others denounced it as a push-poll.

This is why we’re eager to see the 2014 results from the Florida International University poll, the longest-running survey of public opinion in the Cuban American communities of South Florida. When FIU began its project in 1991, 87% of Cuban Americans favored keeping the embargo in place without changes.  When FIU released its last survey in 2011, that figure had fallen to 56%.  We won’t be surprised if the 2014 results – in line with these other findings – show even less support among Cuban Americans for the embargo.

***

Two points in conclusion.  At t a time when more than 400,000 Cuban Americans are returning to the U.S. after visiting their families on the island each year, it’s hard to imagine that they are unaffected by what they see.  As these visits affirm that travel to Cuba helps their families, Cuban American support for further reforms in the policy, in our judgment, is likely to grow.  So, we predict more positive movement in the FIU poll (thanks, we should say, to President Obama’s family travel policy).

Alternatively, if you prefer to believe that nothing has changed, you can consult the Capitol Hill Cubans website.  There, you will find a presentation from 2009 showing that the existing embargo policies are strongly supported by the Florida Cuban-American community. Keep in mind, the analysis is based on a survey by McLaughlin and Associates, Eric Cantor’s pollster.

Still, you can’t predict polls.  With you, we’ll wait to see what the Florida International University survey says next Tuesday.

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