By Yaël Ossowski | Florida Watchdog
ST. PETERSBURG – In visiting the diverse political strongholds across this swing state, candidates never shy from articulating views on foreign policy to appeal to certain constituencies.
The nation of Israel, an ally of the United States, gets a lot of attention, due to the state’s nearly 700,000 Jewish voters, concentrated mostly in southeast Florida.
Groups such as Secure America Now have taken out more than a million dollars in advertising targeting Jewish voters, using the words of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to warn of the growing danger of a nuclear Iran.
Unlike Israel, Cuba policy has received scant airtime in this U.S. presidential contest, checked by the powerful Cuban exile community and the South Florida lawmakers who represent them, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, and U.S. Reps. David Rivera and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, all Republicans.
“The Cuban political class has managed to take a minority cultural view about foreign relations and they’ve converted it into U.S. foreign policy,” said José Gabilondo, an associate professor of law at Florida International University in Miami. “That’s an extraordinary achievement.”
A spoil of the Spanish-American War more than 100 years ago, Cuba has become a recognized enemy of the United States, a result of its ties to the former Soviet Union and its desire to carry out the socialist policies that inspired the now 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo.
According to the U.S. State Department, American foreign policy toward Cuba is based upon “encouraging democratic and economic reforms, supporting the development of civil society in Cuba, promoting respect for human rights, and supporting the Cuban people.”
A 2011 poll released by the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University showed that 70 percent of Cuban-Americans favor re-establishing diplomatic ties with the island nation. Fifty-three percent of those surveyed favor continuing the embargo.
The telephone poll of 648 Cuban-Americans in the Miami-Dade County area on Sept. 19, 2011. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percent.
Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has never swayed from criticizing the Cuban regime.
“Iran and Cuba continue to stop at nothing to control and subjugate their populations through their violent tactics of intimidation and fear. These oppressive regimes seek to silence their people and deny them basic human rights by any means,” she wrote in a news release on Sept. 27.
Ros-Lehtinen has used her role on the committee to focus criticism on the Obama administration’s decision to ease restrictions on travel to Cuba, accusing the president of “appeasement” and “engaging the dictators in Havana despite its own reports illustrating the threat posed by the Castro regime.”
Rubio, who called the loosening of restrictions a direct “source of millions of dollars in the hands of the Castro government that they use to oppress the Cuban people” in a congressional hearing last year, has pressured colleagues in the upper chamber to keep a hard line on the land of his ancestry, influencing the candidate at the top of his party’s ticket.
“President Obama is more muted than he otherwise would be and Mitt Romney is much more of a cold warrior on Cuba,” Gabilondo told Florida Watchdog. “But who still cares so much about the embargo? It’s a relatively small number of influential people.”
In May, Rubio made headlines by visiting Cuba for the first time, touring the U.S. Navy-controlled Guantanamo Bay Naval Base prison where 167 captives from Afghanistan and Iraq remain in custody.
“It’s a place I hope to visit one day soon — a free Cuba, one where the people of Cuba can choose their own leaders and choose their own future,” he told reporters at the Guantanamo airport.
Rubio’s office declined to comment on this story.
Cuba policy in the elections
The tight grip on Cuban policy enjoyed by South Florida lawmakers is so complete that it has stifled the fundraising efforts of political groups focused on Cuban relations.
U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, a pro-embargo political action committee, has raised $360,000 this year, according to its last quarterly report in June, compared to over $800,000 in 2008 alone. Similar Super PACs dedicated to other issues easily have raised tens of millions of dollars in the course of the election cycle.
The only significant mention of Cuba was Republican vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan‘s comment that he had been “educated” on his stance toward Cuba, telling a Miami crowd on Sept. 22 that Ros-Lehtinen and Rivera had succeeded in showing him “just how brutal the Castro regime is, just how this president’s policy of appeasement is not working,” according to the New York Times.
These are markedly different words from a little more than 10 years ago, when Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman, was quite blunt about his opposition to the Cuban embargo.
“The embargo doesn’t work. It is a failed policy. It was probably justified when the Soviet Union existed and posed a threat through Cuba,” Ryan told The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 2002.
“As a libertarian, he should be shocked by the rationale of the embargo,” said Gabilondo said. “You can create conditions of economic unrest within the society such that there will be a popular uprising.
“By starving the island, you can start a tea party revolution of some kind,” Gabilondo told Florida Watchdog.
But despite the absence of Cuba throughout the election campaign, dedicated Cubans continue to push for the embargo.
“In Cuba, drugs, prostitution and killing are the norm,” said Miguel Saavedra, leader of Vigilia Mambisa, a Cuban exile group based in Florida. “Many people have been killed by this Cuban government because they are socialist and they don’t have regard for freedom.”
Saavedra said that looser travel requirements have allowed Cuban-Americans to freely visit family on the island, but he believes the policy of the Obama administration has been the wrong one for encouraging democratic change for his native land.
“The class war that Marx was talking about and Castro talked about is the same class war that Barack Obama is waging today,” Saavedra said. “To have a free Cuba, we have to change the regime and nothing has changed yet.”
In October 2011, the United Nations General Assembly called on the U.S. to abandon its Cold War-era embargo of Cuba by an overwhelming 186-2 vote, the 20th consecutive year such a resolution has been adopted. The United States and Israel were the only countries to oppose the measure.
Yaël Ossowski is Florida Bureau Chief for Watchdog.org. Contact him at Yael@FloridaWatchdog.org.
— Yaël (@YaelOss) September 10, 2012