Makeup of new Congress could create a different dynamic on Cuba policy

On Ninonska Pérez’s two-hour Spanish language program on Radio Mambi, callers couldn’t stop talking about the midterm elections.

Topic Numero Uno: The defeat of two Cuban-American candidates, one a political newcomer and the other an incumbent, who were seeking to represent South Florida districts in the House of Representatives.

Since the election, there’s been plenty of chatter about whether the midterms could change the dynamics of how Congress votes on Cuba issues and whether towing a hard line on Cuba is still a sure-fire election strategy in South Florida.

Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who dependably has joined with 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 María 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 ledger, Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, who has been a champion for 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 Miguel Díaz-Canel, the island’s handpicked president.

Another dynamic that could be a factor in potential Cuba bills is that Democrats now 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, recently added more companies controlled by the Cuban military to a list of entities that are off limits for Americans.

“The president, of course, is the driver of foreign policy and the one who sets the tone and it’s pretty clear what tone the president wants to sets on Cuba,” said William LeoGrande, an American University professor who specializes in U.S.-Cuba relations.

James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a national organization whose goal is to lift the embargo, thinks 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,” said Williams. “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 served as 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 current Cuba policy, especially since New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez and Texas Republican Ted Cruz, both won their Senate races and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the most vocal supporter of increased Cuba sanctions, didn’t face reelection.

“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,” he 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 chargé d’affaires.

Anti-engagement forces also would gain an ally in Florida Gov. Rick Scott who will joins Rubio in the Senate.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott and first lady Ann Scott. Wilfredo Lee AP

“[Nelson] supported the [former President Barack] Obama administration’s opening toward Cuba, but he certainly wasn’t at the front of the train advocating for it,” said Williams. “Scott obviously made Cuba a big part of his campaign.”

That was key for both Scott and Republican governor-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.

As governor, Scott seldom missed an opportunity to criticize the Cuban government and its human rights record. When Cuban port officials visited the state in 2017, two Florida ports — Port Everglades and the Port of Palm Beach — planned to sign cooperation pacts with the Cuban port authority. But Scott scuttled those plans by saying he would oppose any state funding for port infrastructure improvements that would result in an expansion of trade with Cuba.

“I think his positions fit right in with those of the Cuban-American members of the House and Senate,” said Pérez.

DeSantis also seems ready to borrow a page from Scott. He joined six other Florida Republican members of Congress in signing a letter in July asking Trump to consider an investigation into whether Raúl Castro should be indicted for the Feb. 24, 1996 shoot-down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes by Cuban MiGs. Four South Florida men — two pilots and two spotters — lost their lives.

DeSantis also held a Congressional hearing on the shoot-down and concluded that indicting Castro “will send a strong signal that the administration means business.” During a campaign stop in Miami, he repeated the call for Castro’s indictment.

Cason, like most analysts, said he’s not sure where Shalala and Mucarsel-Powell will come down on Cuba policy, but he said with both facing reelection in two years, 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.”

Ric Herrero, policy director for the Cuban Study Group, said he thinks the defeat of Salazar and Curbelo suggests “using hardline rhetoric in order to persuade voters doesn’t really yield any gains in South Florida. We see that two candidates that did that, fell. You’re basically appealing to people who would vote for you anyhow.”

Cuban officials were watching the Florida races as well. Carlos Fernández de Cossío, who heads the U.S. Department at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, noted the losses of Salazar and Curbelo and tweeted: “It seems that [an] aggressive approach to Cuba doesn’t win votes anymore.”

But what those two races showed, said Felipe, is that for Republican candidates in Miami to win, both pro-Trump voters and the constituency whose top priority is a “Free Cuba” were necessary. “Cuba policy is still the driving force though it is coupled with supporting Trump. The question is, how much enthusiasm for Trump will diminish if the White House doesn’t fulfill the promise to turn back all of the Obama Cuba regulations?”

While Cuba wasn’t much of a factor in races beyond Florida, it is often used as a bargaining chip in Congress on other issues.

But with Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart about to become the only “really vocal member on the Cuba issue” from South Florida in a democratically controlled House, he may no longer be in a position to attach Cuba riders to appropriations bills, said LeoGrande.

Williams said Democratic control of the House “does open things up for potential changes.”

However, Cuba hasn’t been a clear-cut Democratic vs. Republican issue. A number of Republicans from farm states are in favor of measures that would make it easier to sell U.S. agricultural products to the island. “Most of the support on agriculture issues comes from ruby red districts,” said Williams.

It’s possible that under Democratic leadership in the House, a bill on allowing private financing and credit for agricultural sales to Cuba could pass, said LeoGrande. “Whether the Senate would pass it as well is an interesting question, but at least there could be a debate.”

In an Election Day tweet on farm states’ interest in increasing trade with Cuba, Miguel Fraga, a diplomat at the Cuban Embassy in Washington who frequently travels around the country trying to gain support for lifting the embargo, said: “U.S.-Cuba relations are good for both sides.”

However, Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, said that “American policy toward Cuba is not determined by American elections or even by Cuban-American voters but by the actions of Havana. You want normal relations with Washington, then you better behave differently.”

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi