Embargo Politics and Public Consensus

World Policy Journal

By: Brendan Krisel

Following President Obama’s Dec. 17, 2014 announcement that the United States would work to normalize relations with Cuba, both pro- and anti-embargo groups in the United States began mobilizing. For one group, Engage Cuba, that mobilization resulted in an official launch on Tuesday, June 16, when the organization aired its first ad campaign on CNBC, MSNBC, and Fox News. By expanding its network of partners and overall influence in Congress, Engage Cuba endeavors to support continued U.S.-Cuban normalization and reform current travel and trade restrictions, according to the organization’s president, James Williams.

“What we are going to continue to do is make the case for why this is important, educate [Congress] on the issues, get them [to] know where the American people stand, where the Cuban people stand, where their constituents stand, what the economic opportunities are, and why this needs to change,” Williams explained to World Policy Journal.

The group has partnered with both political organizations, as well as major corporations, including The National Foreign Trade Council, Proctor & Gamble, and Caterpillar. These relationships are mutually beneficial, said Williams, as Engage Cuba gains credibility and support for its advertising and lobbying. In return, the organization is helping to open up a market that is currently closed to its corporate partners. In the interests of promoting bipartisanship, Engage Cuba has also assembled a group of advisors from both sides of the aisle, including former top congressional staffers Luke Albee, a Democrat, and Steven Law, a Republican.

While groups like Engage Cuba are helping the agenda gain momentum in Congress, Williams knows that a complete normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba is not going to happen overnight. Negotiations in the last six months may have brought the two countries closer than ever before, but the kind of change that these negotiations promise will likely be incremental after 54 years of a failed policy, Williams said.

Ted Piccone, a senior fellow in the Latin America Initiative of the Brookings Institute, described just how incremental that change can be thanks to dysfunction and inertia inherent to congressional politics. In the short-term, there appears to be a stalemate regarding the loosening of sanctions on Cuba among American legislators. On one side, pro-embargo lawmakers will actively attempt to block any advance in negotiations. Meanwhile, those legislators who support normalized relations with Cuba are not unified enough to overcome the obstruction. As Piccone points out, part of the reason that the these groups continue to operate in a one-sided debate is because very little information about Cuba has been available to those in the U.S. until very recently—giving the pro-embargo lobby a continued advantage in framing the conversation.

“[They] have been very strong, organized, and well-funded—they’ve had years to build up their argument and their allies, including PAC money,” Piccone said. “And there hasn’t been a corresponding effort on the other side, so there’s some catching up to do.”

While contending with the pro-embargo faction, Engage Cuba is tasked with bringing the rest of Congress up to speed on the public consensus among the American and Cuban people. Polls released just four days after President Obama’s December announcement show that the majority of Americans support normalized relations between the United States and Cuba. Sixty-four percent of respondents said the U.S. should engage in diplomatic relations with Cuba. With regard to travel and trade restrictions, the results were even more encouraging for normalization proponents: 68 percent supported lifting the trade embargo, and 74 percent supported ending travel restrictions to Cuba.

In Cuba, support for normalized relations is even stronger. An April poll showed that 97 percent of Cubans believe normalization is good for Cuba, and that 96 percent support the end of embargo. Over 80 percent of Cubans also believe that Barack Obama and Raúl Castro should visit each other’s country. However, there is a divide between what the people of each country want and the ability of the Cuban government and American Congress to make it happen.

“That’s one of the most fascinating things about this, that there’s so much similarity between the two. Both of them are not exercising or representing the viewpoints of their constituents on this issue,” Williams said. As it turns out, when it comes to embargo politics, both the old guard of the Cuban Revolution and the pro-embargo legislators in the U.S. want nothing more than to maintain the status quo. According to Williams, the strategy of both groups is to stall further developments.

The current political discourse in Washington surrounding Cuba—led by a minority pro-embargo faction—is misleading, and Congress has an obligation to reflect that over 60 percent of Americans support normal relations with Cuba. In other words, policymakers cannot allow conversations on Cuba to be dictated by unyielding and outdated opinions that stand in the way of the progress. Groups like Engage Cuba represent the force fighting on the front lines, attempting to change the course of both discourse and history.