The Duck of Minerva

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Domestic Politics vs. the National Interest


February 20, 2008

If there is one domestic lobby that has captured US policy toward another country, it is the Cuba lobby that pushes for ever stricter sanctions on the Castro regime. The power of this lobby in Presidential politics can’t be overstated—it is a very large, issue specific, and highly organized voting bloc in Miami Dade county in Florida. Win Florida, win the White House, we all know that story well. Thus, we regularly see leading national politicians competing to out-tough the other in order to make inroads into the Cuban vote in south Florida.

Today’s big news, that Fidel would formally step down as Cuba’s head of state, offers an interesting chance to view the power of this domestic political lobby at a moment when the national interest might suggest an alternative different policy.

The Libertad Act, passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Clinton in the election year of 1996 wrote the US embargo of Cuba into law, significantly strengthening it (Clinton won Florida and won re-election that year). From JFK through 1996, the embargo was a series of Executive orders. The difference: a future president could end the executive orders at any time. Changing the law requires a subsequent act of Congress. A central point of the Libertad act was that the Embargo will remain in force until there is a transitional government in Cuba that does not include Fidel Castro or his brother Raul.

This brings us to today. Fidel stepping aside certainly marks a sea-change in Cuban politics. It does mark a transition in government, but for the time being, Raul Castro remains a part of the picture. This change also presents a unique opportunity for the United States.

Cuba faced tough times after the end of the Cold War. The USSR was a valuable patron, buying its exports and providing funds to subsidize its economy. Without the USSR, Cuba suffered. Recently, though, Hugo Chavez has stepped into that role, using its vast oil profits to funnel money into Cuba.

Here’s the opportunity for the US: take the transition in Cuba, from Fidel to a successor government, to lift the embargo and allow US capital, business, and tourists to pour in (and it would—see the Godfather or Guys and Dolls). Engaging Cuba could steer them away from Chavez and toward the US. The US has identified the rise of Chavez as a national security challenge, and has identified a clear interest in reducing Chavez’s influence in Latin America.

So, here’s the question: Given a clear national security argument for taking this opportunity to engage Cuba, end the embargo, and peel Cuba away from the Chavez camp, does this National Interest trump the domestic politics of pandering to CANF and Cuban voters in Miami in an election year. Do we see the Cuba lobby press for a continued embargo, further driving Raul and the transition government closer to Chavez? What does Bush do, what does Congress do, and what to the Presidential Candidates press for?

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.