Some Cuba Questions For Both Sides

[ Posted Tuesday, August 25th, 2015 – 17:02 UTC ]

In the midst of the current eruption of nonsense over American immigration policy from out on the campaign trail, I have a few more targeted questions to ask of all the candidates. They're really just extensions of one basic question, really, which would be: "What will your policy towards Cuba be if you become president?" However, since Republicans and Democrats have different basic viewpoints on the issue, it must be broken down into more specific queries in order to elicit useful answers. Both questions, for different reasons, will be tough for Democrats and Republicans alike.

First, the Republican question. Since virtually every Republican would likely agree with the statement "Obama moved too fast on regularizing relations with Cuba," the question must be pitched toward what they would do differently. While so far it has been relatively easy for Republicans to just parrot the "Obama is wrong!" line, in reaction to all the steps the administration has taken, some perspective must be interjected to get anything meaningful out of a Republican candidate. After all, when the next president takes office in January of 2017, the U.S. and Cuba will have had full diplomatic relations -- with embassies in each other's capitals -- for a full year and a half. The Castro brothers might not even be alive when the next president is inaugurated. Therefore the questions to Republicans must be: "What will you do differently as president when it comes to Cuba? Will you close our embassy and end full diplomatic relations? How will you change the status quo on your first day in office?"

The question must be specific in order to avoid vague criticisms of Obama. OK, sure, you don't approve of what Obama has done; but given the fact that he has done it, what would you do next? This is a tricky question because the knee-jerk, go-to Republican response for all of these "first day in office" style questions is to say: "I'd immediately head 180 degrees from where Obama was going." However, in this case, it would mean actually reviving the last vestige of the Cold War and closing the embassies. Since Obama changed the status quo that had held since President Kennedy was in office, what would be required would be an active change back. Which of the Republican candidates would be willing to vow to do so?

The politics around Cuba have outsized importance in the presidential race, in the same way that ethanol support does. Both are important local issues to key Electoral College states. Iowa grows a lot of corn, and hence loves ethanol subsidies. Iowa also votes first in the primaries, giving both the state and the issue more prominence than they would normally have. Florida has a lot of Cuban-Americans, and a lot of people in general. Florida and New York are tied for being the third-largest state in the Electoral College (both with 29 votes), and unlike California and Texas (the first and second largest states) Florida is a true swing state. Democrats have won it in the last two elections, and Republicans desperately want to win it back in 2016. So Cuba policy becomes rather crucial to any candidate's chances of winning both the state and the presidency.

The politics of Cuba within Florida has been shifting, however. Older Cuban-Americans are staunchly anti-Castro, but the younger generations care less about bluster and more about the possibility of being able to visit relatives they may never have actually seen. Lifting the travel embargo sounds pretty good to more and more Cuban-Americans, in other words. Add in the complication that American farmers from other states are in favor of being able to sell their produce to a Cuban market, and the issue no longer cuts clearly along either Republican/Democratic or even liberal/conservative lines. The two Republicans I'd really like to hear answers from on the Cuba question are the two who boast of their home-state support in Florida: Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. I've heard both denounce Obama's actions, but haven't heard what they'd do differently yet.

The economic embargo laws must be lifted by Congress. But the next president is going to set the tone -- will we move towards opening up Cuba to American producers and American tourists, or will we move backwards towards imposing as much isolation on Cuba as this country can manage (never mentioned in this debate is the fact that the rest of the world has never gone along with the American boycott of Cuba). For Republicans, the questions must be specific on what changes they would make to the Obama administration's current policies. For Democrats, however, their question is even trickier to answer.

Just as it is safe to assume that most Republicans disagree with Obama, it is also pretty safe to assume all Democratic candidates generally agree with the Obama policy of opening Cuba back up. Rather than just asking a question where a Democratic candidate can merely offer up support for what has already been done, the question has to anticipate the next few steps that will need to be taken. And one of those steps is going to be a touchy one, especially in Florida.

Because when you assume that the embassies will stay open in Washington and Havana, you can also assume that sooner or later the economic embargo will slowly be lifted. Travel to and from Cuba will become an ordinary thing for Americans for the first time since the 1950s. Those will be big changes, but the biggest change is going to anger a lot of Cuban-Americans. The question I'd love to hear Democratic presidential candidates have to answer: "If we do completely normalize relations with Cuba, would you change the special status that Cuban immigrants get when they come to America, and if so, when would you change it?"

Cubans entering America get a rather sweet deal, which is one reason why so many risk their lives in the attempt. American policy is known as "wet feet/dry feet," which is shorthand for saying if you are an undocumented immigrant from Cuba and manage to place your feet on American soil (take a few steps up the beach, for instance), then you are automatically granted not just legal status but an actual green card (work permit). No other immigrant from any other country gets such a sweet deal, in fact. All you have to do is land. If the Coast Guard catches your leaky boat before you hit land, then you are sent back. But if you manage to sneak in and take a few steps on the sand, then you are good to go.

Republicans, if this were a widespread policy for any other country, would doubtlessly call this something like "instant amnesty" or an "open-borders policy" or perhaps something downright insulting. They don't complain about it, however, because it is Cuba we're talking about and not (for instance) Haiti or the Dominican Republic. What began as a "stick our thumb in the commies' eyes" policy to embarrass Fidel Castro has now taken on a life of its own, which means few today even question why the policy exists. But sooner or later, someone in Washington is going to notice that immigrants from one particular country get special status that nobody else in the world gets -- which has become totally outdated now that we've normalized relations once again.

Which is why the question should be put to the Democratic presidential candidates. It will hurt them in Florida, politically. Because any suggestion that the immigration policy for Cuba needs to become the same as our policy for all other countries is sure to enrage a significant portion of the American-Cuban voters in Florida. They've gotten quite used to their special status, and they assumably are not going to give it up without making some noise about it. And Democrats are just as desperate as Republicans to keep Florida in their column in the presidential race. If Democrats win Florida, it may in fact be almost impossible for the Republican candidate to win the White House (the math becomes insanely hard for a GOP victory with Florida's 29 votes in the Democratic column).

So I'd be interested to hear how the Democrats answer that question -- whether they'd be honest and admit that at some point in the near future, Cuban immigrants are going to have to follow the same rules as immigrants from all other countries; or whether they'd dissemble, or try to brush the question off in some way. Florida is a crucial state, after all.

For Republicans, the question is: "How fast would you reverse Obama's Cuba policy?" Presidential candidates should have to answer that question, because opening Cuba is a monumental shift in American foreign policy. If we're going to turn around and go back, the public needs to know that and they need to know how that would be achieved under a Republican president. For Democrats, the question is: "When will you end special immigration status for entering Cubans?" Because any rational person can see that if the Obama policy of opening Cuba back up to the American economy is going to mean that sooner or later the "wet feet/dry feet" policy is going to have to be scrapped. And, again, the public needs to hear what Democratic presidential candidates have to say about it. These questions are tricky for candidates of either party, for the exactly the same reason -- your answer may lose you votes in Florida, no matter what you say. But that's precisely why journalists should be asking these questions, because the voters really deserve to hear those answers when making up their minds.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


6 Comments on “Some Cuba Questions For Both Sides”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    All I know is that I have to experience Cuba soon, before it gets really, really crowded. :(


  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    I just wish out POTUS would give a TENTH of consideration to our allies as he gives to our enemies... :^/


  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    Kudos to CW for framing this issue as non-partisan as humanly possible..

    This is politically punditry at it's finest...

    Every political story has 2 sides...

    Ya'all would be wise to follow CW's example and consider the OTHER side of the equation...

    It might allow ya'all to rack up some debate victories.. :D


  4. [4] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Just because relations are "normalized" doesn't mean that Cuba is suddenly any less of a repressive, dictatorial regime situated less than a hundred miles from florida.

  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    Just because relations are "normalized" doesn't mean that Cuba is suddenly any less of a repressive, dictatorial regime situated less than a hundred miles from florida.

    Troo dat!!


  6. [6] 
    altohone wrote:

    The two main problems

    What most of the candidates will do is going to be different than what they say they'll do.

    Nobody in the corporate media will actually ask such revealing questions.

    If we end up with two establishment candidates, the best way to predict what will happen is to ask what Big Money wants. And the answer will be access to the markets, direct flights to the resorts, and illegal immigrants to keep down labor costs (in other words no more instant work permits).

    Bernie may answer the question honestly and unprompted, but he is difficult to predict on foreign policy. What is best for American workers will likely shape his answer.

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