If Donald Trump ends Marco Rubio’s presidential aspirations in Florida, his triumph would eliminate the biggest threat to President Barack Obama’s efforts to end a half-century of hostility toward Cuba.
Rubio – the most prominent critic of Obama’s Cuba policy – is now fighting to stay in the presidential race. To do so, most experts say, he must win his home-state primary Tuesday, where he now trails Trump in the polls.
Losing Florida would end not only Rubio’s 2016 presidential hopes, but also his plans – and those of many South Florida Cuban Americans – to reverse a series of unilateral steps taken by the Obama administration. Obama is trying to maneuver around the U.S. embargo with Cuba in order to boost trade with the island nation.
“Rubio is the icon on rollback. So if he loses on Tuesday, a big, big chunk of the wind goes out of that thrust,” said Pedro A. Freyre, a Miami attorney who specializes in Cuban business deals. “That leaves (Ted) Cruz as the standard-bearer of that ultra-conservative hardline.”
The Cuba issue was shoved into the presidential race last week as Democrats and Republicans were forced to respond to Obama’s plans to be the first U.S. president to set foot in Cuba in almost 90 years. Obama will travel to Cuba next week.
Since Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced a new start of bilateral relations on Dec. 17, 2014, the administration has relaxed travel restrictions, eliminated limits on remittances and allowed American companies to sell to Cuba on credit.
U.S. deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, speaking last month to a forum of business leaders who are interested in Cuba, said a goal of the administration was to execute enough changes to make it difficult for Congress or a succeeding administration to return to the hostility that ruled U.S.-Cuban relations for two generations.
Cruz, who was born to a Cuban father, has also said he’d rollback Obama’s Cuba policy.
But Cruz did not grow up in South Florida, where the Cuba issue dominates the daily lives of a wide swath of the population. Miami experts such as Freyre see Cruz as more “detached” from the issue, whereas Rubio grew up surrounded by the former exiles and Cuban Americans most critical of the Castro regime.
None of the presidential candidates has spoken out as forcefully against Obama’s Cuban policy as Rubio has. Last week he accused the administration of laying the groundwork for extended communist rule by propping up the Castro regime with millions of dollars.
“There has not been a single democratic opening; not a single change on the island in human rights,” Rubio said in Thursday’s debate. “In fact, things are worse than they were before this opening. The only thing that’s changed as a result of this opening is that now the Cuban government has more sources of money from which to build out their repressive apparatus and maintain themselves there permanently.”
A new Quinnipiac University poll Monday found Trump is leading Rubio by 24 percentage points in Florida.
At Thursday’s debate, Trump tempered his earlier support of Obama’s Cuba policy. Trump said he’d slow the courtship with the Castro brothers by closing the Havana embassy “until he could get a better deal.”
Regardless of Trump’s shifting position on Cuba, his record indicates a willingness to work with the most autocratic leaders and nations. If he can “get along very well with” Russian President Vladimr Putin, manufacture Trump Teddy Bears in China and design suits in Vietnam, working in Cuba shouldn’t be an issue, business advocates said.
“He’s all about the deal,” said David Gomez, political director of #CubaNow, an organization that advocates lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba.
So while Trump said he’d “probably” close the U.S. embassy in Havana, Gomez notes that Trump also said “in his own special way” that he’d continue the policy.
“I don’t agree with President Obama, I do agree something should take place,” Trump said during Thursday’s debate. “After 50 years, it’s enough time, folks. But we have to make a good deal.”
While uncompromising aggression aimed at Cuba has long been a successful way to court Cuban-American voters, it doesn’t seem to have been enough for Marco Rubio. Even many Cuban Americans have eased their position.
“The hardline on Cuba worked for more than 20 years, but it doesn’t work anymore,” said William LeoGrande, a Latin America professor at American University in Washington, D.C. “The community has changed so much demographically that a majority of the community would prefer to engage with Cuba.”