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How domestic politics drove America's Cuba embargo — and might soon end it

President Bill Clinton signs the Helms-Burton Act into law in 1996. The bill toughened the embargo on Cuba and restricted the president's power to end it.
President Bill Clinton signs the Helms-Burton Act into law in 1996. The bill toughened the embargo on Cuba and restricted the president's power to end it.
Richard Ellis / AFP / Getty

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed two years later. But the US embargo on Cuba has stood strong for more than two decades since — despite a consensus among many foreign policy experts that it was outdated and failed to achieve its aims.

The answer for why the embargo has persisted comes down, in many ways, to politics. Yes, US foreign policy does not tend to be friendly to authoritarian communist governments like Castro's, and the Castro regime has continued to be particularly bad on human rights and political freedoms. But the main reason America's Cuba policy has remained so unmoved is that the domestic politics have favored it. And those domestic politics are driven by the extremely strong preferences of a politically active Cuban-American exile community concentrated in the electorally crucial swing state of Florida.

How the opportunity for opening in the early 1990s slipped away

After the end of the Cold War, Cuba, a one-time ally of the Soviet Union, no longer seemed to pose a threat to American security. Many in the US — including business and agricultural interests — saw opportunity in the potential of a more economically open Cuba.

But the Cuban-American exile community, long embittered toward the Castro regime that had displaced them from their homeland and in many cases done terrible things to their families, disagreed. The sudden collapses of so many authoritarian regimes between 1989 and 1991, combined with the economic crisis that hit Cuba when it lost Soviet support, renewed the exiles' belief that Castro could still fall.

So whenever politicians and government officials made tentative gestures toward thawing relations with Cuba, the community pushed back — hard. For instance, early in the first year of his presidency, Bill Clinton planned to nominate Cuban-American lawyer Mario Baeza to a key State Department post. But when it emerged that Baeza had recently traveled with businessmen to Havana — indicating that he might potentially favor an economic opening — many Cuban-Americans lobbied hard against his nomination, and it was soon abandoned.

Then, in February 1996, Castro's military shot down two private planes flown by members of a refugee organization that had reportedly previously dropped fliers over Cuba, and four Cuban-Americans were killed. The shootdown outraged Americans — and moved popular and political opinion against opening relations. The following month, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Helms-Burton Act, which toughened the embargo and restricted the president's ability to end it without Congressional approval.

"Good election-year politics in Florida"

At the time, President Clinton had mused about improving relations with Cuba. But he chose to sign the Helms-Burton Act into law even though it would make achieving that much harder and less likely.

In explaining his decision, Clinton later wrote in his memoir: "Supporting the bill was good election-year politics in Florida, but it undermined whatever chance I might have if I won a second term to lift the embargo in return for positive changes in Cuba."

Clinton was referring to the fact that Florida's Cuban-American community's substantial vote was likely to favor hard-line policies toward the Castro government and punish any show of rapprochement. Florida was then and remains a key swing state in presidential elections, meaning that how this group of Cuban-Americans feel about US policy toward Cuba can play a real role in determining the US president.

At the time, much of the resistance to opening with Cuba was centered in the Cuban American National Foundation. "The well-financed lobby mustered a stable of loyal Congressional allies, drafted Cuba legislation, established anti-Castro radio and television stations with federal money and kept United States-Cuban relations in a deep freeze," Christopher Marquis wrote in 2000.

Eventually, it became clear there were such strong and vocal preferences on the anti-Castro side — combined with fundraising and electoral mobilization to back them up — that most members of Congress had little incentive to argue for liberalization. And though the Cuban-American community is strongly Republican and accordingly got most of its strongest supporters from the party, key Congressional Democrats like Rep. (and later Sen.) Robert Torricelli of New Jersey became crucial allies too.

Presidential candidates also felt they had to court the Cuban-American community, since Florida was a crucial swing state. Practically anything could be blamed for Al Gore's narrow loss of the state in 2000, but his handling of the Elian Gonzalez controversy, which angered many Cuban-Americans, certainly didn't help matters.

Why the domestic politics around Cuba are now changing

The Bush administration, with its rhetorical embrace of democracy and human rights, continued to strictly enforce the Cuba embargo, and to call for regime change in the country. But after decades without political change — and some generational change among the Cuban-American community — the politics of the issue finally appear to have shifted.

A 2014 Florida International University poll of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County found that 52 percent supported ending the embargo. In 1991, 87 percent supported keeping the embargo. Part of that is the influx of a new generation of Cuban-Americans, who have migrated primarily for economic reasons rather than as political exiles, and who favor liberalization. Many in the younger generation of Cuban-Americans would rather travel back to Cuba to see family members — and send home remittances and other goods — than try to topple Castro with an embargo.

Eventually, even Hillary Clinton — not known for being at the left edge of most issues — argued for the embargo to be lifted, as she later wrote in her memoir. While President Obama can't do that without Congressional approval, the steps he took Tuesday put the US closer to that than it has been in decades. That's something he has clearly wanted earnestly to do, but the fact that he is able to at all shows the degree to which domestic politics on Cuba have substantially shifted.

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