By: Nahal Toosi
As President Barack Obama plots a path to Cuba, the big question isn't whether he'll visit the island during his final year in office. It's how many Republicans will beat him there.
A year after the U.S. and Cuba announced they would restore diplomatic ties, Republican resistance to the idea has faded to the point that some insiders predict the next Congress will lift the U.S. embargo on the communist-led island.
A GOP-led Senate panel has already voted to lift an oft-circumvented ban on travel to Cuba. A Republican is spearheading a House bill to end the U.S. embargo.
And Republican lawmakers and governors are hopping on planes to check out the scene in Havana. Just days ago, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who revels in suing the Obama administration, became the second GOP governor to visit Cuba since diplomatic ties were restored, and he spoke glowingly of the potential for economic cooperation.
The GOP shift comes as polls show that a majority of Americans, including Republican voters, favor increased engagement with Cuba. U.S. firms are scouring the island for business opportunities, and pressure is growing on Congress to rescind Cold War-era restrictions including the embargo and travel ban imposed after diplomatic relations were severed in 1961. Both require congressional action to lift.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of House members announced it would launch a "Cuba Working Group" that "will seek to draw attention to how reforms in the U.S. and Cuba are opening new opportunities for commercial, diplomatic and people-to-people relationships."
A notable number of Republicans, including some running for president - two of them of Cuban descent - still adamantly oppose restoring ties to the Castro-led government in Havana. But sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly, what were once minor cracks in the GOP facade on Cuba are now spreading.
"To the extent that there was some resistance, maybe some broad resistance, there's now [just] pockets of resistance to diplomatic relations," said Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican who has long championed engaging Cuba. He said many of his Republican colleagues tell him privately that they support the rapprochement but can't say so publicly. Even many who genuinely oppose restoring ties are staying quiet because they know their constituents, especially if they are farmers or business owners, support it, he said.
"The problem is, particularly for members who have been here long enough to have a history of voting on Cuba, it's tough to change," Flake said. "It's tough to turn around, particularly because the Castros are still alive and there."
Since Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, the brother of now-ailing Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, announced on Dec. 17, 2014, that their countries would set aside half a century of enmity, both supporters and opponents of the move can point to developments to bolster their stance.
Castro and Obama met in person, and the two countries formally restored diplomatic ties on July 20, upgrading their diplomatic missions to embassies. The Obama administration removed Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and the president has, through executive actions, loosened trade and travel restrictions, including easing the way for telecommunications companies to operate in Cuba. Cuba has expanded Internet access for its citizens, while holding groundbreaking talks with the U.S. on issues such as human rights and battling the drug trade.
The two sides recently opened talks on an especially thorny issue: settling claims by Americans, including U.S. companies and Cubans who fled the island for the U.S., whose property was confiscated by the Cuban government after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959. (The Cubans argue that the U.S. owes them damages because of the embargo and other measures it has taken over the years against their country.)
Bill Lane, director of global government relations for heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar, which has long advocated for improving U.S.-Cuba ties, predicted that Congress would lift the travel ban in the coming year and that the embargo would be lifted by the next Congress.
"I've been giving presentations around the country - I even had a former Bay of Pigs veteran say it's about time," Lane said. "Baby boomers want to travel to Cuba. They view the current policy as a sanction on them."
Still, it will be years, perhaps many years, before Cuba and the U.S. are on the same page on key issues.
Opponents of the restored ties note that the Castro-led government continues to arrest political dissidents and harbor U.S. fugitives. They point to a spike in the number of Cubans trying to reach the United States as evidence of fear among Cubans that the U.S. overtures will only strengthen the communist government. They also argue that U.S. businesses who venture onto the island will ultimately fill the coffers of the state, not the people.
Much of the anti-rapprochement effort is led by lawmakers from Florida, including Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, whose constituents include Cuban-Americans with strong views. Thanks to a push by Diaz-Balart earlier this year, the House approved provisions in appropriations bills that strengthen sanctions on Cuba, although those measures face long odds of making it into law. Other efforts to thwart the Obama administration's actions, such as its removal of Cuba from the terrorism list, got little traction.
Opponents of the détente nonetheless insist they have the upper hand. "Castro sympathizers like to mislead the public by pushing a false narrative that they are making progress, but in reality the only things they have to show for their efforts are more repression of everyday Cubans and enriched despots on the island," Ros-Lehtinen said.
Diaz-Balart said the House votes on the Cuba-related provisions showed there is strong support for stopping the diplomatic opening to the island. He also noted that Cuba has relations with most other countries in the world, but the regime hasn't changed as a result. Obama "gives concessions to every enemy of freedom and every enemy of the United States and gets very little in response," Diaz-Balart said.
Supporters of the rapprochement dismiss the House votes as convoluted, rushed and not representative of what most Republicans really believe. When asked about whether they'd support lifting the embargo or similar legislation, "most Republican lawmakers that we deal with are in the camp of 'I don't care. I don't want Mario and Ileana to yell at me, but I'd vote for it if it came up,'" said James Williams, president of the Engage Cuba coalition.
Obama administration officials acknowledge plenty of hurdles lie ahead. The regulatory environment in Cuba has a long way to go before being welcoming to U.S. companies, and the two countries have very different points of view on human rights. The future of the U.S. military prison and naval base at Guantánamo Bay, territory that Cuba wants back under its control, remains a sore spot. In an interview with Yahoo! News released Monday, Obama said he expected that issue would be resolved after he leaves office.
Obama and his aides argue, however, that Cuba is more likely to change with U.S. engagement. In his talk with Yahoo!, Obama said that if Cuba, which lies just 90 miles off U.S. shores, "wants the full benefits of rejoining the world economy," its leaders need to accelerate reforms.
"Normalizing our relationship ... is a complex, long-term process, and we will continue to work with Cuba to address areas of mutual concern as well as areas of difference," a senior administration official told POLITICO in a statement.
In his interview, Obama said he wants to visit Cuba next year, but that if he goes he would want to meet with dissidents as well as Cuban officials. Sources familiar with the White House's planning said the odds are Obama will go earlier in the year - late winter or early spring.
However, if it appears that Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton is well ahead and poised to win, Obama could wait to visit Havana until closer to the election. If she appears certain to lose, he may want to go anyway, in part to urge Cubans to speed up reforms on their end to make it harder for a succeeding Republican administration to reverse the rapprochement policy, said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
The GOP split over Cuba is evident in its presidential field. Contenders such as Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas have come out against the rapprochement, with Rubio especially vocal about his intent to roll back the reforms in the Cuba-U.S. relationship. Cruz and Rubio, both of Cuban descent, also have vowed to block any attempt by Obama to confirm an ambassador to Cuba, and for now it appears the White House won't be nominating one. But other GOP 2016 contenders, such as Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and firebrand front-runner Donald Trump , have said they support restoring ties to Cuba (although Trump asserts that "we should have made a better deal").
For many insiders, however, what's been most intriguing is that Cuba barely gets a mention on the campaign trail, suggesting Republicans don't think it's a winning issue to push.
"Nobody brings it up. It doesn't come up at one debate from a moderator," Williams said. "If this had any vote traction whatsoever, somebody would be talking about it."