This morning, before an audience gathered at Florida International University, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “The Cuba embargo needs to go, once and for all. We should replace it with a smarter approach that empowers the Cuban private sector, Cuban civil society, and the Cuban-American community to spur progress and keep pressure on the regime.”
Earlier this week, Representative Tom Emmer wrote in an op-ed arguing that none of the aims of U.S. policy are achievable with the embargo still in place. The Minnesota Republican said ending trade restrictions would advance the goals of human rights, free expression, and open markets in Cuba. This week, Emmer did more than talk; he introduced legislation to repeal the embargo with Rep. Kathy Castor, a Florida Democrat.
What are we in the U.S. supposed to think when a Democratic candidate for President of the United States and a Republican elected to the Congress in 2014 use the same language to increase public support to end the embargo that was used for decades to defend sanctions?
Let’s start by recognizing that Secretary Clinton and Rep. Emmer are right to call for the trade embargo to end. Restrictions on trade and travel hurt Cubans economically and demonstrate disregard for their country’s sovereignty, which hurts our relations with Cuba and the nations of Latin America more broadly.
These policies have also prevented the people of our country from traveling freely, exchanging with Cuban citizens from whom we have much to learn, and deprive U.S. companies of opportunities for profit and job-creation by locking them out of the Cuban market.
Emmer framed his bill and Clinton framed her Cuba policy speech by defining repeal of the embargo as an expression of the U.S. national interest.
Then, by coincidence or design, Emmer and Clinton both used language most likely to win the most valuable new converts to their cause: those least likely to change their minds because they are angry at Cuba’s government or still hold out hope that after more than 50 years sanctions will finally begin to work.
Social science tells us that if you if you want someone to accept a new perspective make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction.
Instead, talk to them, as Tom Emmer does, in ways that connect the case for ending the embargo to their most cherished values. As he said to a reporter for USA Today:
“I understand there’s a lot of pain on both sides of this issue that goes back many decades, something that a kid from Minnesota is not going to necessarily be able to understand. But I believe this is in the best interests of the Cuban people. This isn’t about the Cuban government – it’s about people on the street looking for more opportunity and to improve their quality of life.”
The literature also says you can advance the argument further by providing information to people that they also assume to be true. This was undoubtedly why Secretary Clinton said that Cubans “want to buy our goods, read our books, surf our web, and learn from our people. They want to bring their country into the 21st century. That is the road toward democracy and dignity,” she said, “And we should walk it together.”
Their language advocating an end to the embargo must have been very effective, since it appeared to make supporters of the U.S. sanctions strategy very nervous – given their reactions.
Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, lectured Secretary Clinton that she’d gotten the politics wrong – she was energizing voters who disagree with her position, operating on the basis of manipulated, unreliable polls – and allowed herself to be “walked down a political plank.”
Florida Senator Marco Rubio called her position “a grave mistake” and an act of “appeasement.”
Jeb Bush said that Secretary Clinton is endorsing “a retreat in the struggle for democracy in Cuba,” and he called her speech “insulting to many residents of Miami.”
Of course, it depends what your definition of “many” is. A call to action “Join us to protest Hillary demanding the lifting of Cuban embargo” produced what Politico called “a relatively muted response from about two dozen participants.”
To us, this is storm and fury signifying little.
The hardliners know — as we do — that when conservatives unite behind a policy that’s consistent with their values, joined by businesses who believe the policy is good for their bottom lines, joined by foreign policy icons declaring the strategic interests of the U.S. will be realized by trading with Cuba rather than isolating it, joining the faith community, and joining experts and advocates who’ve been here all along – this is how great causes gather momentum.
In losing the battle for language, they are really losing the war on policy. Even if some of the rhetoric seems a little stale, the debate has actually shifted and the wind has already changed course.