Pity Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
The two Cuban-American senators are relatively young, in their mid-40s. And their political rise coincides with a change in U.S.-Cuban relations that neither particularly welcomes.
Cruz and Rubio will likely be politically active when full trade relations with Cuba are finally restored. Though both are vying for the Republican presidential nomination, it’s unlikely that either will be in the White House when that evolution occurs. That’s just as well, as both have taken the firmly anti-engagement posture of their Republican elders.
Yet the winds of U.S. commerce are blowing strong against the famous seawall protecting Havana, the Malecon. And these are strong gusts, able to topple the Cold War-era groundings of Rubio and Cruz.
The coming year will be crucial.
Jan. 1 will mark the 57th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s overthrow of Fulgencio Batista. A year ago, President Barack Obama’s announcement to press for normalized relations kicked off a flurry of activity. Much of it was organizing by business interests with strong Republican ties, eager for Cuban markets.
The U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, a group of corporations and trade groups, officially stepped forward to press for lifting the embargo in the month after Obama’s announcement. A bipartisan committee was organized in the House to look at normalizing relations. In May, Cuba was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. In August, in another milestone, the U.S. Embassy was ceremonially reopened in Havana.
Governors of numerous states have sent exploratory trade delegations to Cuba, especially those eager to increase agricultural exports. The most recent trip had Texas Gov. Greg Abbott visiting in late November. Cuba imports nearly 80 percent of its food.
Despite the movement, it will be impossible to fully unwind the bureaucratic stalemates between our two countries quickly.
How much can be accomplished between now and the end of Obama’s term is crucial. As with immigration reform and so many other measures, there is only so much Obama can do through executive action and policy change. Congressional cooperation will be necessary to lift the embargo and to manage the details of banking and a related thorny issue: the nearly $8 billion in claims (including interest) of U.S. corporations and citizens whose assets and property were seized by Castro after the revolution. Those losses were a key reason for the embargo in the first place.
In early December, the first talks were held in Havana by State Department officials to settle the claims. Early reporting indicated they didn’t get very far. Some experts have speculated that the Castro regime threw down its own counterclaim, asking for reparations for the economic costs of the trade embargo, which Cuba has put at more than $100 billion.
In another year, the U.S. will have a new president, and it is unlikely to be one as headstrong as Obama has been about opening to Cuba, even if it is Hillary Clinton.
Rubio, Cruz and other Republicans can be counted on to stall the progress that Obama has made. But they won’t completely stop it.
The crux of their opposition is the dismal human rights record of Fidel and Raul Castro. Rubio and Cruz don’t sidestep the jailing of dissidents and other human rights abuses as so many Americans, particularly business interests, conveniently do. Yet they differ from many of their middle-aged Cuban-American contemporaries, who increasingly support lifting the embargo.
The two senators have come of political age in a fast-changing era for Cuba-U.S. relations.
Regardless of who prevails in the GOP presidential nomination, Cuba is no longer a geopolitical threat. And in American politics, the interests of business come first.