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Why Democrats Should Forget About Winning Florida

It would free them to embrace better policies toward Cuba.

By , professor of government at American University in Washington, D.C., and co-author with Peter Kornbluh of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.
People shout slogans as they march through the streets of Miami, Florida, to commemorate the first anniversary of Cuba's historic protests against the government of Miguel Díaz-Canel
People shout slogans as they march through the streets of Miami, Florida, to commemorate the first anniversary of Cuba's historic protests against the government of Miguel Díaz-Canel
People shout slogans as they march through the streets of Miami, Florida, to commemorate the first anniversary of Cuba's historic protests against the government of Miguel Díaz-Canel on July 11. CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images

On an election night when Democrats did far better across the country than they had any reason to expect, Florida stood out as the exception. A red tide—not the one fouling Florida’s coasts, the one inundating its politics—swept away Democrats’ illusions that the Sunshine State might still be competitive. Gov. Ron DeSantis won in a landslide against Charlie Crist, a veteran Florida politician and former governor. Sen. Marco Rubio also won by a wide margin, defeating Rep. Val Demings, one of the strongest candidates the Democrats could have fielded. Democrats lost 20 of Florida’s 28 House races, failing to take back a major seat in south Florida (FL-27) that they had hoped to reclaim after losing it in 2020. In 2021, for the first time in Florida’s modern political history, there were more registered Republicans than Democrats. Democrats are still competitive in the urban strongholds of Tampa, Orlando, and Miami, but statewide they are not. There is no plausible scenario in which President Joe Biden or any other Democrat beats former President Donald Trump, let alone DeSantis, in Florida in 2024.

There is a silver lining to this dark electoral cloud for Democrats: A deep-red Florida gives them the freedom to reconstruct their Cuba policy based on U.S. foreign-policy interests rather than prognostications about Cuban American voters in Miami-Dade. But the habit of letting domestic politics drive Cuba policy will be hard to break. It has shaped how Democrats approach the issue for 40 years—ever since the 1980s, when Cuban Americans became a significant voting bloc.

Former President Bill Clinton admitted that “anybody with half a brain” knew the U.S. embargo against Cuba was a “policy of proven failure.” Nevertheless, during his 1992 campaign, he supported legislation tightening the embargo in order to outflank then-President George H.W. Bush on the right, and in 1996 he signed legislation writing the embargo into law. “Clinton really wanted to carry Florida,” explained former National Security Council official Richard Feinberg. “That was numero uno.” (Clinton lost there in 1992 but won in 1996.)

On an election night when Democrats did far better across the country than they had any reason to expect, Florida stood out as the exception. A red tide—not the one fouling Florida’s coasts, the one inundating its politics—swept away Democrats’ illusions that the Sunshine State might still be competitive. Gov. Ron DeSantis won in a landslide against Charlie Crist, a veteran Florida politician and former governor. Sen. Marco Rubio also won by a wide margin, defeating Rep. Val Demings, one of the strongest candidates the Democrats could have fielded. Democrats lost 20 of Florida’s 28 House races, failing to take back a major seat in south Florida (FL-27) that they had hoped to reclaim after losing it in 2020. In 2021, for the first time in Florida’s modern political history, there were more registered Republicans than Democrats. Democrats are still competitive in the urban strongholds of Tampa, Orlando, and Miami, but statewide they are not. There is no plausible scenario in which President Joe Biden or any other Democrat beats former President Donald Trump, let alone DeSantis, in Florida in 2024.

There is a silver lining to this dark electoral cloud for Democrats: A deep-red Florida gives them the freedom to reconstruct their Cuba policy based on U.S. foreign-policy interests rather than prognostications about Cuban American voters in Miami-Dade. But the habit of letting domestic politics drive Cuba policy will be hard to break. It has shaped how Democrats approach the issue for 40 years—ever since the 1980s, when Cuban Americans became a significant voting bloc.

Former President Bill Clinton admitted that “anybody with half a brain” knew the U.S. embargo against Cuba was a “policy of proven failure.” Nevertheless, during his 1992 campaign, he supported legislation tightening the embargo in order to outflank then-President George H.W. Bush on the right, and in 1996 he signed legislation writing the embargo into law. “Clinton really wanted to carry Florida,” explained former National Security Council official Richard Feinberg. “That was numero uno.” (Clinton lost there in 1992 but won in 1996.)

The 2000 election in Florida is burned into the collective memory of Democrats—especially Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, who was chief of staff to then-Vice President Al Gore and general counsel of Gore’s recount committee. In reprisal for Clinton returning 6-year-old Elián González to his father in Cuba, Cuban Americans cast a voto castigo (punishment vote) that cost Gore the presidency. Thus was born the conventional wisdom that to carry the swing state of Florida, Democratic presidential candidates had to be at least as tough on Cuba as their Republican opponents.

Former President Barack Obama challenged that wisdom in a limited way in 2008 and 2012 by appealing to Cuban American moderates with policies that favored family connections, relaxing restrictions on remittances, and travel. That strategy worked; Obama reached a high-water mark for Democrats, winning about half the Cuban American vote in 2012. But even Obama did not undertake his historic normalization policy until after he was safely reelected.

Trump’s success at mobilizing the Cuban American right by reversing Obama’s rapprochement with Havana persuaded some Democrats that the popularity of Obama’s policy was an anomaly. Biden returned to the default posture of trying to be as tough on Cuba as the Republicans, leaving most of Trump’s economic sanctions in place and adding new ones. Biden has even gone a step further, giving the diaspora a privileged role in crafting his Cuba policy, calling Cuban Americans “a vital partner” and “the best experts on the issue.”

The futility of this approach was on display in the election results, and a recent poll of Cuban Americans in south Florida explains why. Respondents overwhelmingly opposed Biden’s Cuba policy—72 percent to 28 percent—even though it was not substantially different from Trump’s, which they supported overwhelmingly. Cuban American antipathy toward Democrats goes far beyond Cuba policy, reaching across a wide range of issues, foreign and domestic. Cuban American Republicans greatly outnumber Democrats in party registration, and according to exit polls, 67 percent voted for Rubio and 69 percent for DeSantis.

If Florida is lost for the foreseeable future to Democrats running statewide, freeing the national Democratic Party to formulate Cuba policy based on national interests, what would that policy look like?

It would begin from the premise of promoting regime change or coercing the Cuban government into compliance with U.S. demands, but both approaches have an unbroken record of failure stretching back more than 50 years. As Democratic icon and former President Franklin D. Roosevelt advised: “Do something. If it works, do more of it. If it doesn’t, do something else.” Time to do something else.

A Cuba policy based on national interests would recognize that inescapable geography gives the United States and Cuba significant interests in common, ranging from migration to environmental protection, public health, narcotics interdiction, and more—interests that can only be advanced through cooperation.

It would acknowledge that no other country in the world supports Washington’s policy of hostility, as the near-unanimous annual United Nations vote against the embargo has recorded for 30 years in a row. Many U.S. allies, especially the left-center governments now predominant in Latin America, actively oppose that policy, as they told Secretary of State Antony Blinken on his recent trip to the region. By stubbornly sticking to a policy of hostility, the Biden administration is hobbling its hemispheric agenda, as the partial boycott of the Summit of the Americas in May illustrated—and this at a moment when China’s influence in the region is on the rise.

Finally, a realistic policy aimed at promoting a more open Cuba, politically and economically, would recognize that if the United States hopes to have a positive impact on the dramatic changes underway on the island in the post-Castro era, it has to actively engage with Cuba’s new leaders and with its increasingly vibrant civil society.

In short, a policy based on U.S. national interests would look a lot like the policy Obama announced on Dec. 17, 2014—the policy Biden promised during the 2020 campaign to return to “in large part” but hasn’t. Obama’s policy was hailed by U.S. allies across Latin America and Europe and praised by both former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Pope Francis. One would be hard-pressed to name another U.S. foreign-policy initiative in recent decades so universally applauded. If Biden is prepared to craft a Cuba policy that makes sense as a foreign policy, he doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. He just has to put it back on the cart.

William M. LeoGrande is coauthor with Peter Kornbluh of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana. Twitter: @WMLeoGrande

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