Florida vote may affect U.S.-Cuba policy
It sounds complicated, but it isn't. As we know, Florida is one of the key swing states in the November election, and has a significant Hispanic population that cares deeply about Latin American affairs.
Democratic candidate Barack Obama's Latin America platform calls for a relaxation of restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba without lifting U.S. trade sanctions. Let's say Obama loses Florida, but wins the November election. He could be tempted to go all the way and propose doing away with the U.S. embargo on the island, the theory goes. Key Democratic members of Congress are already calling for an end to trade sanctions.
Republican candidate John McCain's Latin American platform calls for a continuation of the Bush administration's tough line against the Cuban regime and pretty much echoes the stands of hard-line Cuban exile groups. Let's say McCain loses Florida, but wins the general election. He could conclude that he doesn't owe much to his Cuban exile constituency, the theory goes.
Much like fellow Republican Richard Nixon made history by opening ties to Communist China, McCain could surprise everybody by starting talks toward a normalization of ties with Cuba. That would draw enthusiastic support of key congressional Republicans from Midwestern farm states eager to export to Cuba.
Granted, the next president will not be able to change U.S.-Cuba policy by himself. Under the 1996 Helms-Burton law, the White House cannot lift the embargo without congressional approval, nor recognize any transitional Cuban government that includes Fidel or Raúl Castro.
But many long-time observers of U.S.-Cuban affairs note that the next U.S. president will be the first one in five decades to face a new reality in Cuba, following the recent resignation of Fidel Castro as president and his replacement by his 77-year-old brother Raúl.
''If you win the presidency without Florida, you don't feel as committed to abide by the current policy, and you can move to change it,'' says Crescencio Arcos, a former senior Homeland Security and State Department official. ``It's not that you can change it overnight, but you would have a tremendous bully pulpit to modify it.''
Jaime Suchlicki, head of the University of Miami's Institute of Cuban Studies and a supporter of the U.S. sanctions on the island, disagrees.
''Both parties are going to continue to try to seduce the Cuban exiles anyway, regardless of whether they win or lose Florida,'' Suchlicki says. 'If Obama loses the Cuban vote by a wide margin, he may think, `Look, we may have won one or two seats in Florida this time, and the congressional elections are close, so I can't just go and lift the embargo overnight.' ''
According to the latest polls, Obama is ahead nationwide, but trailing in Florida. A nationwide Washington Post/ABC poll with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points showed Obama leading with 52 percent and McCain trailing with 43 percent. Other polls have Obama ahead by two or three points, within the margin of error.
In Florida, a Fox News/Rasmussen poll with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points gave McCain 51 percent and Obama 46 percent. Other polls also have McCain leading, but within the margin of error.
My opinion: Regardless of who wins Florida, what may influence future U.S. policy toward Cuba the most will be whether the Democrats can increase their support among Cuban Americans, and -- more importantly -- whether they can unseat any of the three South Florida Cuban-exile Republicans in Congress.
McCain is expected to win the Cuban-American vote by about 70 percent. But the Democrats are outpacing Republicans in voter registration and fundraising in several South Florida districts.
If Obama exceeds expectations and wins around 40 percent of the Cuban-American vote, or a Democrat unseats one of the three South Florida Cuban-Americans in the House, it will be seen as a significant shift in Cuban exile politics. U.S. policy toward Cuba has long been a domestic political issue, and it may become more so this time around.