Obama in Havana


A curious comment by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in the debate last Thursday brought our humble Cuban American abode to its feet in celebration. Nearing the midpoint of the debate, when Sanders’ alleged support for normalizing relations with Iran was brought into question, he replied that he had never said that, while conveying his acknowledgment that Iran was indeed a State Sponsor of Terrorism. He then topped off his thought with a pertinent observation.

“But you know, a number of years ago, people were saying…Normal relationship with Cuba, what a bad and silly idea. They’re Communists, they are our enemy. Well guess what? Change has come.”

The thunderous applause in the auditorium was echoed in our living room. He then proceeded to remind Madam Secretary and the nation that it was Clinton who in 2008 criticized then Senator Obama for being “naive because he thought it was a good idea to talk to our enemies.” Sanders masterfully took a false and vague allegation and, assertively, turned it into an opportunity to espouse a philosophy of diplomacy.

It would seem that the self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist is right, at least as far as the fact that the Democratic Party has settled on the matter of whether or not Obama’s Cuba overtures will be sustained if a Democrat is elected commander-in-chief. Hillary Clinton has already made her Cuba speech at FIU earlier this year championing the president’s initiative, albeit in a predictably confrontational manner that reflects her hawkish background and worldview.

This new “normal ” of viewing engagement with Cuba as a “no-brainer” is a welcome change from the past and, hopefully, it will remain as a fixture of the Democratic Party’s platform for years to come. The elation in our house came because of the reaffirmation of how far we have come in these few months. It is also clear that if Cuban American households around the nation want to continue to reconstruct their family bonds with the island in the unprecedented manner in which they have been able to do with Obama’s rapprochement, then either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton are the best options for president.

Obama’s bold moves towards Cuba have been universally lauded abroad and positively confirmed domestically by myriad polls. His call to end the embargo at this year’s State of the Union address was clear and his administration backed it up by more regulations changes at the end of January designed to encourage more travel and certain exports to the island. Through the use of executive order he has chipped away at the Cold War restrictions that are still within the presidential jurisdiction including travel, telecommunications, and remittances and has encouraged bilateral meetings and agreements on matters pertaining to US national and regional interests such as environmental issues, regional security, human and narcotic trafficking, and disaster relief.

Now, it is time for Barack Obama to set aside the pen of the executive office and extend the hand of diplomacy. The moment has arrived for the president to take the next emboldened step in this historic process of normalization and go to Cuba. He has made it known that he wants to go before the end of his term. It’s just a matter of when. If I may be so bold, I’d like to suggest a time- the first fortnight of March, after Super Tuesday and before the Florida primary on March 15th.


Obama has suffered an obstructionist Congress and constant assault and character assassination from a right-wing media machine throughout his entire presidency. With the primary election season hitting its stride it’s time that Obama wreaked some havoc on the Republican Party. A presidential trip to Cuba right before the primary will obligate the candidates, both presidential and congressional, to posture either for or against normalization and the predictable onslaught of pro-embargo invective that will spew from the likes of Rubio, Cruz, Bush, and Christie (assuming the latter two are still campaigning) will only serve to do irreparable damage in the general election.

Let the Republicans out-nasty each other by declaring just how much they would recklessly dismantle the advances that many Cuban Americans have painstakingly achieved with family businesses during these past years by suspending remittances to the island. Let Ted Cruz say he is in favor of rolling back unlimited travel to Cuba for Cuban Americans to once every three years. Let Marco Rubio repeat, as he is prone, that he doesn’t care if “99% of people believe we should normalize relations with Cuba.” Let Jeb Bush recount his deep ties to the pro-embargo political dinosaur class. Let Christie spout off about how important it is that no progress with Cuba be made until Assata Shakur is extradited to New Jersey, while never mentioning the crimes committed by Omega 7 in his home state. They will not win one more vote then they would have already, but- they will alienate many Floridians, and a growing majority of Cuban Americans, when it comes time to vote in November.

It will also serve to tighten up the ranks in the Democratic Party. Rubio’s Senate seat will be up for grabs and it is imperative that whoever takes over is pro-normalization. Patrick Murphy, the leading Democratic candidate is considered to be an “establishment candidate.” He has tiptoed around the issue of Cuba but is more open to engagement than Alan Grayson, another supposed “liberal firebrand” who is awful on the issue of Cuba.

Who is going to support Grayson? Debbie Wasserman Schultz?

Time and time again she has been just as horrible as her good friend Mario Diaz-Balart about engaging Cuba. Will she be forced to bite her lip during the Florida primary or will she back herself into a corner and support Grayson? She already has egg on her face for her terrible handling of the Democratic primary debate schedule. Why not force the issue and expose her and her stances that go against party leadership and its vision for the future? Her position as leader of the DNC should already be in a precarious position and any more rifts between her and leadership might bring an end to her run in that capacity. Normalization with Cuba is enormously popular with Democrats in Florida and with Cuban Americans who are registered Democrats and Independents. It is also popular with younger Cuban Americans, a majority of whom voted for Obama. If Murphy wants to be the nominee and also enjoy the added benefit of high Democratic turnout in the general elections, then he should fall in line behind Obama and whoever the Democratic presidential nominee is and push for normalization. If elected, Murphy’s vote would be key in the legislative battles that will have to transpire in order to repeal the web of legislation that codifies the embargo. Going from Marco Rubio to any pro-normalization candidate would be a huge swing in the upper chamber of Congress.

It’s also worth mentioning that David Jolly, the GOP’s frontrunner in the U.S. Senate primary in all pertinent polls has been supported by pro-normalization groups in the past and is substantially better on Cuba, in general, than the rest of the Republican primary field.

One indicator of how successful Obama’s Cuba policy has been is the fact that Cuba is never mentioned in the Republican primaries and rarely while stumping. It gets referenced when Marco Rubio talks about his parents “escape from oppression.” Or, when he talks about expanding Guantanamo, which is actually American territory but is the only part of Cuba he has actually visited. Cuba policy is implicitly referenced whenever Rubio, Ted Cruz, or other candidates speak about reversing the executive actions that Obama has taken. However, until now, the only mention of Cuba has been whether Rafael Cruz being an evangelical and from Cuba is a rarity.

Incidentally, that “issue” was brought up by the GOP frontrunner, Donald Trump, who has said that engagement with Cuba “is fine.” He does insist though that we “could have gotten a better deal.” With Rand Paul out Trump will be the only pro-engagement candidate on the Republican ballot leading up to the Ides of March. On the other side you have three candidates that are inextricably linked to ultra right-wing Cuban American power base. Marco Rubio’s connection to this group is problematic because of his family having fled from the instability brought upon by Fulgencio Batista, a dictator to whom many of Miami’s elite exile community who arrived after the Rubios owed for their power and wealth. Ted Cruz, a son of someone who purports to have supported the Cuban revolution and fought against Batista, has taken his father’s myth for truth and happily accepts thousands of dollars from pro-embargo resources. Then there’s Jeb! Nobody is more beholden to the Miami cabal of right-wingers than Bush for his actions that he took against the extradition of Luis Posada Carriles and his lobbying drive to prevent the Immigration and Naturalization Service from expelling Orlando Bosch, another unrepentant murderer, all of which won him support for his gubernatorial campaign and administration. Until recently, the majority of the Cuban American republican political class has supported Bush but his lackluster primary performance may send donors scrambling to see who still shares their myopic and anachronistic views of how to deal with Cuba.

Curiously, Mike Fernandez, a major Bush donor, has also come out with editorials about the need to pursue normalization. Fernandez has also supported a pro-engagement political action committee that is replete with the contributions of several other individuals and families from southern Florida that have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the most vociferous perpetrators of the perpetuation of the embargo for the last three decades. After having “thrown money” at the problem for years these vacillating donors have decided that, now that it’s safe, they can publicly admit that the embargo really isn’t in their best interests anymore. When push comes to shove who will Fernandez and the other Johnny-come-latelies to normalization back? Will Jeb! be persuaded to acquiesce to the inevitability of normalization with the island? Will Carlos Gutierrez, the former Bush Secretary of Commerce who systematically violated the rights of nearly two million Cuban Americans with his recommendations as Co-Chair to the U.S. Commission fro Assistance to a Free Cuba, be able to talk any sense into his Republican colleagues’ hard heads as a newly minted warrior for improved U.S.-Cuba relations? Many former opponents of normalization and their backers are in the unfamiliar waters of now having to actively push for engagement with the island. Will they pursue normalization as tenaciously as they have so vehemently advocated for a strengthening of the policy of economic strangulation against the Cuban nation?

Regardless, an Obama trip to Cuba will pit Trump against the field of anti-normalization candidates who will split the pro-embargo vote. Florida’s primary is “winner-take-all” so splitting the pro-embargo vote on the Republican side could mean a victory for Trump. More importantly, it could mean a demoralizing defeat for either Bush and Rubio in their own backyard while making it nearly impossible for Ted Cruz to secure the number of delegates he would need in order to become the GOP’s nominee.

An Obama trip to Cuba leading up to the Florida primary could have serious implications in the vote on March 15th. For too long Florida has controlled the narrative about how to deal with Cuba. Now it is time for Cuba to disrupt the political process in the Sunshine State.

Benjamin Willis is an activist living in New York who worked with the Cuban American community in bringing about engagement during the Obama era.