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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Time for Dems to Play ‘Cuba Card’ in FL?

Time was, even uttering a favorable comment about normalization of relations with Cuba resulted in a political death sentence for aspiring candidates in Florida. But it looks increasingly like those days may be coming to a close, according to recent opinion survey data and comments by presidential candidates.
Obama is leading the charge toward normalization for Democrats, calling for an easing of travel restrictions for Cuban-American family members and increasing the amount of money they can send to relatives back in Cuba. Obama also has indicated a willingness to meet with Cuban leaders. Edwards agrees that travel restrictions should be eased for family members, but supports a “cap on remittances to use as leverage against the regime,” according to an article by Beth Reinhard and Lesley Clark in yesterday’s Miami Herald. Clinton opposes any easing of travel restrictions, except for “humanitarian cases,” until Castro’s rule ends, but she supports allowing family members to send more money to Cuban relatives. The Herald article did not discuss views of “second tier” Democratic candidates.
Obama’s postion appears to be closest in line with current political opinion among south Florida’s Cuban American population, according to the 2007 Florida International University poll. Among the findings reported in the executive summary of the 2007 FIU annual survey:

Approximately 65 percent of respondents signal that they would support a dialogue with the Cuban government, up from 55.6 percent in the 2004 Cuba poll. The percentage of survey respondents supporting such a dialogue has risen from approximately 40% in the 1991 poll to the current year’s mark which is the highest in the history of the poll.
Approximately 57.2 percent would support establishing diplomatic relations with the island.
55.2 percent would support allowing unrestricted travel to Cuba .
Although only 23.6% feel that the embargo has worked well, 57.5 percent of the Cuban-American population expressed support for its continuation. The percentage of the respondents supporting the embargo declined from 66 percent in the 2004 poll. In fact, this is the lowest percentage of the population ever expressing support for the embargo.

However,

About 65 percent of the respondents are U.S. citizens. Of these, 91.1 percent report being registered to vote. And of these, 66.1 percent are registered with the Republican Party 18.3 percent are registered Democrats and 15.2 percent are registered as Independents.

Florida is always tricky for presidential candidates. But the stakes may be even higher this year, thanks to Florida joining the early primary states — Florida will likely be the first of the ten largest states to hold a primary.
Democrats interested in supporting change in U.S. Cuba policy should check out Paul Waldman’s post at American Prospect’s Tapped blog. Waldman offers this frame for Obama’s policy, which might also work for anyone else who supports a decisive change in our Cuba policy:

“After 45 years, we know the embargo is not working. My opponents are too afraid of losing a few votes to tell you the truth. But I’m not afraid. I will tell you the truth. Let’s do what we’re doing with China: engage the Cubans, trade with them, show them the virtues of capitalism and democracy. I’d like to see any of my opponents tell us just how continuing a policy that has failed for nearly half a century is in our interest or the interest of the Cuban people. This is why the public gets cynical about politics: when politicians won’t do what they know is right because they’re scared they’ll lose a few votes. That’s the kind of politics we need to put behind us.”

Presidential candidates are often reluctant to stake out such bold positions on controversial topics like Cuba-U.S. relations. This is a mistake, Waldman believes:

The reason the candidates can’t see the political advantage in this is that they’re still taking a reductionist view of the electorate and their own candidacies. They look at an issue like this and say, the only voters who care about the embargo are the ones that favor it, so there’s no advantage in opposing it. But doing so communicates something about who you are — brave, innovative, etc. — to everyone, whether this is their most important issue or not. It’s a political winner.

An interesting point of view — one which merits serious consideration by Democratic candidates who want to be seen as strong innovators. For background information on Florida’s Cuban-American demographic, see FIU’s Cuban Research Institute web page here.

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