I have sometimes cited US-Cuban relations as an unusually pure illustration of the effects of the US presidential electoral college on policy. Cuba had been a major locus of Cold War history: the site of the US’s most embarrassing Cold War fiasco (the Bay of Pigs) and of our most dangerous confrontation with the Soviet Union. Accordingly, it was a longtime major preoccupation, if not obsession, of American policymakers. CIA spooks tried multiple bizarre tricks to assassinate Fidel Castro. The necessity of avoiding “another Cuba” was a major rationale for President Reagan’s bloody campaign of subversion of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, and for his support of regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador that slaughtered tens of thousands of their own people.
With the end of the Cold War a quarter century ago, the US motivation for isolating and sanctioning Cuba would seem to have collapsed; yet, despite significant domestic support from business and other interests, the hard-line US stance persisted. Why? The answer, in a word, is Florida.
Florida was populated by hundreds of thousands of bitter refugees from Castro’s Cuba, and they voted. And their votes especially counted in Florida, a state rich in electoral college votes that no presidential candidate, Democratic or Republican, could write off. If the national popular vote determined who gets elected president, Cuban-American votes would get lost in the multitude. But as a major determinant of the outcome of a big bloc of electoral votes, Cuban-Americans count. And so presidential candidates wedded themselves to the inflexible anti-Castro stance favored by an intensely motivated minority in a single important state. President Obama’s move towards normalizing relations with Cuba deserves praise, but it would not have happened without a sea change in sentiment among Cuban-Americans during the past generation. According to one recent poll, 68% of Cuban-Americans now favor lifting the US embargo against Cuba. That number increases to 90% among young people. President Obama’s move seems actually likely to help the Democrats in Florida in 2016.
The new relationship with Cuba is a good thing most of all for the Cuban people, who have been the major victims of the embargo. It is a good thing also for the US, which can now get past the minor but chronic strain in relations with the rest of Latin America that our stubborn Cuba policy has caused. I have to admit that for me the greatest pleasure occasioned by the change was in seeing Florida’s baby-faced Catholic senator, Marco Rubio, fuming at the role played by Pope Francis in facilitating the US-Cuba rapprochement. As a long-lapsed ex-Catholic, I am hardly one to praise the Holy Father gratuitously, but this particular pope has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to throw off the shackles of the past, an ability that continues to elude the junior senator from Florida.