Fernando Menéndez: Paul Ryan and the Cuban Embargo

In Miami, a flurry of speculation was stirred recently when it was discovered Rep. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate, voted at least three times against the US trade embargo with Cuba in 2001 and 2004.  Standing as a committed free trader, Ryan is reported to have said: “If we’re going to have free trade with China, why not Cuba?”

Conservative spokesmen in Miami’s Cuban-American community were quick to point out that Ryan has since been “educated” to the real situation on the island, and that since 2007 he has voted against easing trade sanctions on Cuba.

The Embargo: pro and con.

Advocates of the embargo, which prohibits trade and normal diplomatic relations, have long argued (a) the embargo can be used to leverage changes in human rights, political and economic reforms from the regime, and (b) a stranglehold will bring the regime to its knees.  After more than 50 years, such a strategy shows no evidence of success.  It is at best an inconvenience for the regime in Havana and at worst, an excuse for the failures of the system.  When the state can’t produce enough soap, blame it on the Yankee embargo.

In fact, this is exactly the position Paul Ryan explained in a 2002 interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:  "The embargo doesn't work. It is a failed policy. It was probably justified when the Soviet Union existed and posed a threat through Cuba. I think it's become more of a crutch for Castro to use to repress his people. All the problems he has, he blames the American embargo."

Moreover, Cuba currently buys large quantities of medicines and agricultural products form the United States under a commercial loophole.  Cuban-Americans are allowed family visits and journalists and researchers can be found in Havana restaurants sipping mojitos.

This begs the question, why continue to pursue a policy that has not met its objective?

On the other hand, those who favor normalization of relations with the island believe that through exposure to trade and tourism, Cubans will begin to see what they’re missing out on and demand changes from their government.  They also argue trade and normal relations provide a better leverage point than non-engagement.

A position also taken by Ryan in 2002, arguing the "more we have a free exchange of people and ideas and customs, the more the people of Cuba will be exposed to the values of freedom and liberty."

The problem is that for over two decades, Cuba has had normal relations and conducted trade with the European Union, Japan, Canada and Latin America, welcoming investment, trade and tourism from all those countries and no significant changes have taken place.  Cuba’s population, long exposed to the outside world through tourism and other contact, has not openly challenged its government to any degree this approach might suggest.

The Miami Factor.

The fear Ryan’s free trade position might cause a problem for the GOP is largely a factor of electoral politics in the state of Florida.  Traditionally, Cuban-Americans in south Florida have voted largely Republican.

Times, however, have changed.  While Dade County is heavily Cuban-American, it is no longer true that that community is as monolithic as it once was.  Generational differences, changes in educational and socio-economic status, as well as a rush of new Cuban immigrants with living ties to the island have all conspired to change how Cuban Americans feel towards their homeland.  US-born Cuban-Americans have distant memories of their parents’ home.  The new immigrants, once they claim US residency, clamor back home with dollars and merchandise for relatives.

The anti-Castro Cold Warriors, like their counterparts in Havana, are now dying out and Cuban-Americans are dropping their hyphenated loyalties with each new generation.  Despite the heated political debates, tens of thousands of Cuban-Americans travelling each year to visit relatives on chartered flights from Miami have already voted with their plane tickets on the issue of normalization.

Ryan’s true feelings concerning free trade with the communist island may well turn out to be a subject of scrutiny on Miami’s heavily politicized talk radio programs.  Democrats, who have generally favored normalization, will exploit it to divide the Cuban Republican vote.  Most importantly, the number of families who hated Castro enough to leave Cuba, but who ultimately favor normalization, may turn out to be a silent majority for Ryan.