Politics

Marc Caputo: Revising history, Hillary Clinton’s Cuba flip-flop not really a ‘Hard Choice’

 

mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com

Too bad Florida International University’s latest poll, which showed Miami-Dade Cubans increasingly oppose the embargo of the island nation, didn’t ask respondents just two more questions:

1. Do you favor lifting the embargo only if Cuba holds open and fair elections, releases political prisoners and allows for a free press and labor unions?

2. Does Hillary Clinton need a time machine?

OK. Maybe No. 2 wouldn’t make the cut.

Now that the erstwhile secretary of state, U.S. senator and first lady is plugging her new book and publicly reversing her long-held positions on Cuba, her memory about the embargo, its effect and its history seem a little foggy.

“I recommended to President Obama that he take another look at our embargo,” Clinton writes in her book, Hard Choices. “It wasn’t achieving its goals, and it was holding back our broader agenda across Latin America.”

Putting aside the debate about the embargo’s effectiveness or fecklessness, just what did Clinton want Obama to “look at” and how? If she advocated that Obama try to lift the entire embargo, as reported elsewhere, it doesn’t make much sense.

Obama, or any president, can’t do it alone.

And Clinton can greatly credit one person for that: Bill Clinton, her husband.

As president, Clinton signed the Helms-Burton Act in 1996 just after the Castro regime shot down the spotter planes of Brothers to the Rescue, a Cuban-rafter aid group. Helms-Burton essentially “codified” the longstanding embargo by taking a series of executive orders, dating back to 1960, and making it federal law.

To undo the embargo, it takes an act of Congress — no easy feat with this bunch of partisan do-littles.

“Up until the time Bill Clinton signed Helms-Burton, the president could have said unilaterally: ‘I’m lifting the embargo.’ He can’t do that now,” said Robert L. Muse, a Washington attorney and lobbyist who’s both an embargo expert and opponent.

Muse, though, points out that the president has authority for “piecemeal, ad hoc” workarounds that could effectively expand some trade through certain types of licensing. But the next president — think Miami Republicans Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush — could or would just as well reverse that decision.

So it’s really unclear just what Hillary Clinton wanted Obama to “take another look at” — rum, cigars, hotel deals, alleged medical breakthroughs the Cuban government touts?

It’s also tough to find where Hillary Clinton, while on book tour, has mentioned her husband’s responsibility in signing Helms-Burton.

On June 12, at the Council of Foreign Relations, she referenced how “the Brothers to the Rescue plane [was] shot down, ensuring there would be a reaction in the Congress that would make it very difficult for any president to lift the embargo alone.” Then she immediately decided to “fast forward” and talk about Cuba under the Obama administration.

Not so fast. That’s historical revisionism by omission.

The shoot down didn’t just make lifting the embargo “very difficult” — it directly led President Clinton to strengthen the embargo by signing Helms-Burton. And Hillary Clinton didn’t point that out at all.

Going back in time, to March 12, 1996, at the White House, here’s what Bill Clinton said at the Helms-Burton signing ceremony:

“The legislation I sign today further tightens that embargo. It sends a strong message to the Cuban government — we will not tolerate attacks on United States citizens and we will stand with those, both inside and outside Cuba, who are working for a peaceful transition to freedom and democracy.”

Under Helms-Burton, the embargo would be lifted if Cuba held free and fair elections, frees political prisoners and allows for a free press and labor unions.

That’s why FIU, in its poll released last week, probably should have asked about this as well. Such a question would gauge the depth of support or opposition to the embargo once people were informed or reminded about its intent.

FIU’s poll didn’t ask that for a basic reason: It has had the same questions in 11 polls since 1991 (before Helms-Burton was signed). FIU wants to keep the survey the same to measure changes in attitudes over time involving the island as seen by Cubans in Miami-Dade, the hotbed of exiles.

The trend over two decades: support for the embargo among Miami-Dade Cubans has steadily declined by as much as 39 percentage points while support for unrestricted travel (a separate issue with its own complications) has increased 25 points.

Now, the embargo is opposed 45-41 percent. It’s still supported, however, by registered Cuban-American voters. They tend to be more conservative and older.

A Miami Herald/el Nuevo Herald poll conducted this month by Bendixen & Amandi International found that Miami-Dade Cuban voters supported the embargo 56-36 percent, but voters in the entire county were essentially tied over the embargo 45-46.

But the Herald poll also indicated, in Miami-Dade, that a candidate who espouses a softer line on Cuba could suffer more than he gains in the county. We’ll need more polling — and elections — to see how that plays out in the county and state.

Opposition to the embargo appears far more outsized across the rest of Florida. A recent Public Policy Polling survey said state voters disfavored the policy 53-22 percent.

A survey from the Atlantic Council also indicated Floridians wanted to normalize relations with Cuba by 63-30 percent. None of the polls asked people if the embargo should unilaterally be lifted.

Still, it’s tough not to see a change. There are the scientific polls. And there are anecdotes: the pamphleteers on Calle Ocho passing out fly-to-Cuba adverts to idling motorists; one of the Fanjul sugar baron brothers now calling for normalization, etc.

And politicians are changing, too. First, Democrat Charlie Crist reversed his Cuba hardline that he once held as a GOP governor. Now Hillary Clinton is sporting her Cuba flip-flops.

Like her husband four years before, Clinton in 2000 talked about the need for democratization in Cuba, as Helms-Burton required, while she ran for senate. In the 2008 presidential elections, she remained on message.

“Until there is some recognition on the part of whoever is in charge of the Cuban government that they have to move toward democracy and freedom for the Cuban people, it will be very difficult for us to change our policy,” she said at a Dec. 2, 2007, debate in Iowa.

But now she believes the embargo is Castro’s “best friend,” despite the regime’s efforts to end it? Now she appears to believe Cuba will democratize more if the United States unilaterally drops the embargo (insert tangential argument about China here)?

Clinton’s new position isn’t new, nor is her old one. The pros and cons are as old as the embargo, about 54 years.

The arguments were well established in 1996. That wasn’t just the year of Helms-Burton. It was a presidential election year. Almost as soon as the Brothers to the Rescue planes went down in flames, Bill Clinton pledged to sign Helms-Burton.

The pro-embargo bandwagon beckoned.

And Lincoln Diaz-Balart, then a Republican congressman from Miami, made sure to add the codification of the embargo to the act, which tightened restrictions on Cuba in other ways.

“I knew he would have to sign it, even though he didn’t want to,” Diaz-Balart said. “He signed it because it was an election. And it worked. He got 35 percent of the Cuban vote.”

That percentage earned by Clinton helped him become the first Democrat in 20 years to win Florida, and it marked a 15-point improvement from his 1992 margin with Cuban voters, according to Florida exit polls.

Now the polling is changing. Another presidential election looms and another Clinton is changing position on Cuba in anticipation of a political campaign.

No need for a time machine to explain this. Politicians who reverse their positions in response to polling are as old as democracy — even older than Fidel Castro.

And poll-tested election-driven conversions are hardly “Hard Choices.”

Read more Marc Caputo stories from the Miami Herald

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