An iron rule grows rusty

Congressman Paul Ryan, who would have been a heartbeat from the presidency had things gone differently last week, was once quite sensible regarding the 50-year-old US embargo on Cuba. “It doesn’t work”, he told the Milwaukee Journal in 2002. He has voted some 20 times to ease or end it.

As Mitt Romney’s running mate, he had to be re-educated. It has been an iron rule of American presidential politics that you cannot win in Florida without pandering to the maximalist Cuban exiles in Miami’s Little Havana for whom nothing short of root and branch regime change will suffice. One of their number, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, took Ryan in hand.

He can now safely return to his original conviction. Indeed, it would probably be in his best interest to do so should he aspire to the White House in his own right four years from now. The iron rule is getting rusty.

President Obama did not, in the end, need Florida to secure re-election. He won it anyway. Not only that, he won it with the help of Cuban-Americans who hitherto have reliably voted Republican.

Depending on which exit poll you want to believe, Obama won a majority of the Cuban vote or came second by a narrow margin. Either way, it was the strongest ever showing for a Democrat, well up from the previous high water mark of 35% achieved by Bill Clinton in 1996.

What’s clear is that it is no longer political suicide in the US to want to have something approaching a rational Cuba policy.

Obama picked up Cuban-American support doing things that make the Ros-Lehtinens very unhappy. He hasn’t wasted breath verbally abusing the Castro brothers. He has removed most of the obstacles imposed on the US side to interaction between Cuba and its diaspora — at a time when Havana itself is actively reaching out to its emigres around the world.

If you’re in Miami and a relation as distant as your father’s second cousin lives in Havana, you can now visit her as often, and send her as much money, as you please. There are eight flights a day between the two cities. It is easier than ever for Americans without family connections to hop on one without running afoul of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

“Our community has left the hardliners behind,” William Vidal, a contributor to the blog On Two Shores, wrote after the results were in last week.

He pointed out that one of the few incumbents to lose their congressional seat was Republican David Rivera whose district borders Ros-Lehtinen’s. Rivera was trounced by Democrat Joe Garcia, who favours expanded “people to people” contact between the US and Cuba. Voters in Little Havana itself elected a strong proponent of Obama’s policy as their state representative in preference to what Vidal called an “establishment hardliner”.

The On Two Shores blog states its purpose as “to bridge Cuba and Cubans wherever they are, to find common ground, to work towards normalisation. We see this as a problem to solve, not a conflict to win.”

A poll taken by Florida International University in September last year suggests this vision of the way forward is gathering strength particularly among Cuban-Americans born after the revolution and those who have more recently taken advantage of America’s open door policy towards Cuban emigres.

Fully two thirds of post-1994 immigrants, representing around half of the current Cuban born population of just over 1 million, “strongly” or “mostly” favour “establishing a dialogue among Cuban exiles, dissidents and representatives of the Cuban government”; 55% say the embargo has worked “not at all”; 75% favour unrestricted travel to Cuba by all Americans; 70% would like to see diplomatic relations restored.

If not yet ripe, the time is certainly ripening for a process to end the half century long stand-off between the US and Cuba and, more importantly, between Cubans themselves.

Some are seeking guidance from South Africa’s negotiated transition from apartheid. In September, Carlos Saladrigas, founder with other Cuban-American business leaders of the Cuban Study Group, invited Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool and former Sinn Fein vice president, now MP for West Tyrone, Pat Doherty to participate in the launch of what CSG is calling “The Reconciliation Project”.

The initiative, not publicly announced until last week, seeks to “create a safe space for respectful dialogue that helps advance the goal of the reunification of the Cuban nation.” That should be a little easier in the wake of Tuesday’s election.

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