By Mac Margolis
Published Nov 29, 2008
From the magazine issue dated Dec 8, 2008
Barack Obama's inauguration is still nearly two months away, but you can already hear the thawing sound over the Florida Strait. Latin America experts anticipate that Obama will quickly make good on his campaign promise to "immediately" revoke the restrictions imposed by George W. Bush in 2004 that severely limit Cuban-American travel and remittances home. Obama has also vowed to shut the Guantánamo Bay prison, long a gringo thumb in the eye to Cubans (and all Latin Americans).
Such moves would be a diplomatic milestone and could herald the end of a stale ideological feud. They'd also buoy Washington's poor image in Latin America at a time when foreign powers are cozying up to the hemisphere. China's Hu Jintao recently toured several Latin American states to strengthen trade relations. Moscow dispatched warships to the Caribbean for joint naval exercises with Venezuela (already a prized customer of Russian arms) and is exploring investment opportunities in the region. Both are making inroads with certain left-wing governments that have cast Bush as a bête noire. While Obama's diplomacy won't completely tilt the global scales Washington's way, it could turn the last page on the Cold War and "be of tremendous symbolic value," says Shannon O'Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations. "This would take the wind out of the sails of a lot of anti-American rhetoric in the region."
A rapprochement would also reflect a big change in U.S. domestic politics. The deeply anti-Castro Cuban-American lobby has held sway over official Cuba policy for decades, and has acted as an important voting bloc in the swing state of Florida. But Cubans are now a minority among the state's Hispanics, and polls show that younger Cubans are far less rigid about the U.S.'s Cuba policy than their parents and grandparents are. In November, Obama lost the Cuban-American vote, but he fared just fine with younger Cuban voters, and won the Hispanic vote and Florida overall.
So will the Cuban-Americans' dwindling power allow Obama to push Congress to lift the trade embargo against Havana? Unlikely, says Daniel Erikson, a Cuba expert at the Inter-American Dialogue. He notes that Congress's six Cuban-Americans wield considerable clout, and that 25 percent of U.S. lawmakers took money from the Florida Cubans—60 percent of which went to Democrats. Obama has also vowed to keep the embargo as a bargaining chip to press Cuba for greater civil liberties. An even bigger obstacle, says former senior U.S. diplomat Donna Hrinak, is that "Obama has so many fires to put out, Cuba is not going to be anywhere near the top of the agenda." But the fact that a Latin American state is on Washington's radar is already an improvement.