Op-Ed

U.S. heartland is ready to normalize with Cuba

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited a produce market in Havana on a trip to Cuba this month.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited a produce market in Havana on a trip to Cuba this month. AP

In the rush to oppose the Obama administration’s foreign policy, GOP candidates have missed the single exception to the generalized ire of Republican voters. Nearly one year after the president began to normalize the U.S.-Cuba relationship, Americans, including Republicans, support the restoration of diplomatic relations, and demand more freedom to trade with and travel to Cuba.

Even in the American heartland, where politics run red and presidential primaries set the nation’s political pulse, voters’ support for the administration’s Cuba policy crosses the political spectrum.

On Nov. 17, the Atlantic Council released a poll that asked voters in Tennessee, Iowa, Ohio and Indiana about U.S.-Cuba policy. Iowa and Ohio have long held a unique role in presidential politics, and Indiana and Tennessee have key congressional delegations that determine Cuba policy. For example, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he has yet to stake a claim in the Cuba discussion.

Here is what this critical voting bloc from the heartland has to say: 68 percent say Yes to President Obama re-establishing diplomatic relations, 67 percent say Yes to lifting the travel ban; unsurprisingly, libertarians are irritated with a travel policy more restrictive than the one limiting movement to North Korea or Iran. And 57 percent say Yes to ending the trade embargo with Cuba.

Voters in these states are certainly not supporters of the administration. Asked about the direction of the country, 70 percent think the United States is on the wrong track. But, a full 58 percent of these same skeptics favor President Obama’s reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba.

The president’s other policies don’t enjoy that kind of support; in August, a poll from Quinnipiac University found that a mere 24 percent of Ohio voters support the Iran nuclear deal.

These numbers show that Cuba policy no longer resides in Miami and Washington alone; it is important to agricultural communities in the American heartland, to business owners everywhere and to all Americans who believe they are entitled to freedom of movement.

One would be hard-pressed to find another foreign-policy issue where Democrats and Republicans fall squarely on the same side. Though support for a normalized relationship with Cuba is strongest among Democrats, majorities of Republicans and Independents also back lifting the travel restrictions and the restoration of diplomatic relations. Changing these Cuba policies is no longer a third-rail issue among Republicans.

Favorability for the administration’s Cuba policy is highest in Ohio. With 78-percent support for restoring diplomatic relations, 76-percent support for lifting travel restrictions and 70-percent support for ending the trade embargo, voters in this critical state clearly believe the time has come to begin a fully normalized relationship with Cuba.

The last vestiges of support for the embargo lie with a small group of elected officials who have made a career advocating for this policy. This dogmatic approach is no longer reflective of the American voter, even among Cuban Americans.

Like the rest of America, the majority of Cuban Americans and Floridians, those closest to this issue, have moved toward majority support for ending the sanctions.

President Obama has done almost all he can to advance the U.S.-Cuba relationship. The remaining sanctions lie in the hands of Congress. On paper, common sense would dictate that a Republican Congress would never remove the sanctions in an election year. Yet, undoing the remaining sanctions is exactly what voters want. It could be an easy and politically attractive move for Republicans seeking to show that cooperation in Washington can occasionally replace gridlock.

In an increasingly globalized world, it is anachronistic that Americans cannot visit or trade with a country 90 miles off our coast. Americans of all partisan stripes seem to be in rare agreement that the time has come to remove a stagnant policy that has lasted way beyond its time.

Glen Bolger, a partner at the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies, conducted the poll.

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