Cuba-bashing by both U.S. political parties is a four-season sport in American politics. But it always reaches a fevered pitch around election time.
Over the last twenty years, big changes in U.S. policy that turned tighter the screws of the embargo took place in presidential campaign years.
Other than politics, it’s hard to explain why the Cuba Democracy Act passed in 1992, the Helms-Burton Act became law in 1996, or the Bush travel restrictions which clamped down on Cuban American travel to the island were imposed in 2004.
As policy makers toughen the policy in Washington, candidates are out on the trail with red-meat rhetoric to try and outdo their opponents and prove their anti-Castro bona fides.
In 2007, during the last campaign, candidates at a Univision debate were asked about the Castro regime having survived nine U.S. Presidents. “What would you do differently,” the moderator said, “that has not been done so far, to bring democracy to Cuba?”
Senator Fred Thompson replied with tough talk, “I’m going to make sure that he didn’t survive ten U.S. presidents.”
Also running that year, Governor Mitt Romney endorsed the embargo, promised Cuban Americans he’d stand “side by side with the members of this community in fighting the menace of the Cuban Monsters,” and quoted Fidel Castro, using the phrase “Patria o muerte, venceremos [Fatherland or death, we will prevail],” in the mistaken belief that the slogan would rouse hardliners in the exile community to his side.
Four years later, it’s happening again.
Gov. Romney was out last fall with a white paper calling Cuba a rogue nation leading a virulently anti-American movement across Latin America and castigating the Obama administration for relaxing sanctions on Cuba without “demanding reforms.”
These days, according to press reports, while maintaining his tough stand from 2008, Romney mentions “almost nothing” about Cuba’s off-shore drilling and U.S. Cuba relations; he’s campaigned in Florida mainly against President Obama and promoting his economic plans.
But his surrogates have Romney’s back: with Capitol Hill Cubans attacking his opponents and with endorsements by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (who defend Romney against attacks for his anti-Dream Act immigration stance before Latino audiences).
Perhaps sensing a void, Speaker Gingrich is on the offensive. He has at least one commentator cheer-leading his pandering appeals to Miami Cubans. Gingrich casts himself as the harshest critic of the Castro regime, vows to reestablish the Bush-era travel restrictions on Cuban Americans, has hired a top campaign adviser to Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and offers a less restrictive immigration policy.
He is also running this Spanish-language radio spot which ridicules Romney’s Castro sloganeering from 2007 and talks up his work in Congress with Romney supporters Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart on Helms-Burton in 1996.
With the Florida presidential primary taking place on January 31, two nationally-televised debates set for Tampa (NBC) on Monday and Jacksonville (CNN) on Thursday, and four candidates including the anti-embargo Rep. Ron Paul and the pro-Monroe Doctrine Sen. Rick Santorum vying for votes, it’s hard to believe the anti-Cuba pander-monium won’t really get out of hand.
This actually matters. While many Americans correctly view campaign pandering with cynicism, candidates tend to mean – and do as officeholders – what they actually say during campaigns. That’s especially true of presidents who can wheel freely on foreign policy (more so than on domestic affairs).
As one scholar wrote recently:
I suspect that many Americans would be quite skeptical of the idea that elected officials, presidents included, try to keep the promises they made on the campaign trail.
Political scientists, however, have been studying this question for some time, and what they’ve found…is that presidents invariably attempt to carry out their promises…presidents’ agendas are clearly telegraphed in their campaigns.
The rhetoric also matters because the issues matter.
Whether it’s the sad news that we report on the death of Wilmar Villar, a 31-year-old dissident, who has just died in prison after a nearly two-month hunger strike; the predicament of Alan Gross, the U.S. contractor starting his third year in jail for carrying on activities under a regime change program some of the candidates are promising to intensify; the imminence of Cuba drilling in the Gulf of Mexico; or anyone one of a number of issues made more complicated by the existence of the embargo, it matters what the candidates say about these issues because any one of them could be elected president and have the opportunity to turn their rhetoric into U.S. foreign policy come 2013.
All of us had better be paying attention and listening.