Paul Ryan's Visit to Versailles and the Future of Cuban American Hardliners' Clout
Can hardline Cuban American voters, particularly those for whom supporting the U.S. embargo of Cuba is the granddaddy of all litmus tests, really trust in Paul Ryan’s change of heart on Cuba, as reinforced by his visit this weekend to Versailles restaurant in Miami, the soul of the hardline Cuban American community? Probably not. But they don’t have to trust his change of heart; they merely need to be reassured by the display of it. It’s no small thing to have a record as long and clearly in favor of engaging Cuba and ending the embargo as the one Paul Ryan is doing his best to bury, and then to come out publicly as the Republicans’ candidate for vice president and insist you now understand thanks to the guiding light of your Cuban American friends in Congress. This is not to say that Ryan (or any politician in his position) can’t take back his flip flop, but it would certainly be very awkward. And that’s going to have to be enough for embargo supporters in Miami.
Paul Ryan was obviously chosen for the ticket for reasons other than his stance on Cuba policy and that means that the hardliners in Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and the brothers Diaz-Balart (one of whom has retired to pave the way for a political career in the Cuba he envisions one day), who all wisely backed Romney early on, did what they do best. They made lemonade with the lemon Romney gave them. In exchange for their impassioned endorsements, he said everything they wanted him to say...."clamp down on the Castro regime," "[Obama's] policy of appeasement," and "we will be tough on this brutal dictator."
In the end, the few Cuban Americans for whom Cuba is the issue on which they cast their vote are unlikely to stay home because they believe Paul Ryan still opposes the embargo. They’ve seen what President Obama has done in office up to now – which, though by embargo opponents’ standards is woefully little, still looks to them as too much – and they will vote against Obama’s policy, rather than for a Romney-Ryan policy. (Don’t forget that Obama has his own history of opposing the embargo, but his backpedals have been much more nuanced.)
However little they may understand the on the ground dynamics at play on the island today, these Cuba embargo voters are not stupid. They know well that politicians say one thing when they’re free to, and they often say quite another if the right mix of pressures forces them to do so. That mix is a combination of political leaders who stop at nothing in defense of their embargo, and a steady flow of political donations to help lubricate the twisting of arms. A 2009 report by non-profit watchdog Public Campaign tracked the mid-2000's uptick in political donations by pro-embargo groups and the Cuba policy voting records of members of Congress before and after the donations and – shockingly – found money made a difference. It's worth noting that voting records shifted significantly in the years following the creation of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC and the re-election of a president who repeatedly bucked his Republican-led Congress each time it tried to ease the Cuba embago, making it clear to members that pushing Cuba policy reforms in Congress offered little chance of success.
While embargo opponents have failed to generate the same kind of influence that embargo supporters have, what happens if the hardliners’ well should run dry? Donations to the flagship pro-embargo PAC are down significantly in the current election cycle, following a pattern from the previous cycle as well. Time will yet tell if this drop in donations to the PAC will be sustained, and how quickly it could affect the hardliners’ influence on members of Congress’ views. The PAC has smartly bet not only on individual members of Congress, but it has made heavy investments in leaders within Congress, who in turn lean on their colleagues when necessary. (Why else give $10,000 to Senate Minority Leader and hope-to-be Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who doesn’t even have a race this cycle?)
But unless the PAC can pull off what no one has yet managed, to grow rather than steadily lose embargo support in a younger and more connected-to-the-island Cuban American community, even its all-powerful days are numbered.