Makeup of new Congress could create a different dynamic on Cuba policy
Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald
On Ninoska Perez’s two-hour Spanish language program on Radio Mambi, callers couldn’t stop talking about the midterm elections.
Topic No. 1: the defeat of two Cuban-American candidates, one a political newcomer and the other an incumbent, who ran represent South Florida districts in the House of Representatives.
Since the elections Tuesday, there’s been plenty of talk about whether the midterms could change the dynamics of how Congress votes on Cuba issues and whether toeing a hard line on Cuba is still a surefire election strategy in South Florida.
Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who dependably has joined other Cuban-American members of Congress on Cuba issues, lost to Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who was born in Ecuador; and Democrat Donna Shalala defeated Cuban-American Maria Elvira Salazar.
Gone, too, will be one of the most passionate voices for a free Cuba. Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who endorsed Salazar, is retiring from the seat that will be held by Shalala.
On the other side of the political ledger, Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, who has championed increased travel and trade with Cuba, is retiring. So is Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who traveled to Cuba in September and met with President Miguel Diaz-Canel.
Another dynamic that could be a factor in potential Cuba bills is that Democrats will control the House of Representatives. But Republicans increased their majority in the Senate and the Trump administration, which has already made it more difficult for Americans to travel to and do business with Cuba, says tougher measures are coming soon.
James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a national organization whose goal is to lift the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, said the defeat of two Cuban-American candidates signals that the South Florida electorate is changing.
“Coming in, our hope was that at least one Cuban-American House seat would change. Florida was one of the few places where Cuba was actually talked about during the election,” Williams said. “With Ileana Ros-Lehtinen stepping down, it really changes the nature of the South Florida delegation and you’re starting to see new faces.”
James Cason, who was head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 2002 to 2005 and is a former mayor of Coral Gables, doesn’t think the midterms will shake things up much in terms of Cuba policy, especially since New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez and Texas Republican Ted Cruz both won their Senate races and Florida Democratic Sen. Marco Rubio, the most vocal supporter of increased Cuba sanctions, wasn’t up for re-election.
“The key people in the Senate who were important on the Cuban issue, Menendez and Cruz, were reelected and, of course, Marco Rubio will continue to play an important role,” Cason said. “None of these senators will allow an ambassador to be appointed for the U.S. Embassy in Havana.”
That would mean an embassy already severely downsized after more than a dozen American diplomats suffered unexplained health attacks, would remain in the hands of a charge d’affaires.
Anti-engagement forces also would gain an ally in Florida Gov. Rick Scott if he joins Rubio in the Senate. But Scott’s margin of victory over Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson is so small that the votes are being recounted.
“(Nelson) supported the Obama administration’s opening toward Cuba, but he certainly wasn’t at the front of the train advocating for it,” Williams said. “Scott obviously made Cuba a big part of his campaign.”
That was key for both Scott and presumed Republican Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis, said Marcell Felipe, founder of the Inspire America Foundation, whose mission is to encourage freedom in Cuba and the Americas. “These candidates motivated the community to go out and vote for them. It’s a niche vote that made the difference in these tight elections,” he said.
Cason, like most analysts, said he’s not sure where Shalala and Mucarsel-Powell will stand on Cuba policy, but he said that with both facing re-election in 2020, they wouldn’t be expected “to gain anything by being more Obama-ish on Cuba and in this region they could lose something.”
Shalala, a former Health and Human Services secretary, has been somewhat ambiguous on Cuba policy.
On her campaign website, Shalala said she favors “pressure on dictatorial regimes through sanctions and diplomatic strength, but not punishing their citizens or those seeking freedom and opportunity in the United States.”
Cuban officials were watching the Florida races as well. Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, who heads the U.S. Department at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, noted the losses of Salazar and Curbelo and said on Twitter: “It seems that (an) aggressive approach to Cuba doesn’t win votes anymore.”
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