The Biden administration this week eased some restrictive policies toward Cuba and Venezuela in a bid to increase relations with the isolated nations, a move that has drawn bipartisan pushback and may further imperil Democrats’ chances to win over some Hispanic voters in Florida and elsewhere.
Biden and Democrats struggled in Florida in the 2020 election as Republicans painted their opponents as embracing socialist policies. With Biden taking steps to engage with Cuba and Venezuela, those attacks are likely to return ahead of the midterms, potentially further alienating voters who have fled or have family in those countries.
In a sign of how unpopular the policies may be among some voters, Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) who is running against Florida Republican Marco Rubio for his Senate seat in November, gave a cool reception to the Biden administration’s announcements.
“Easing sanctions on Venezuela only empowers Maduro and his cronies,” Val Demings tweeted. “We don’t support the Venezuelan people struggling for freedom and democracy by appeasing his murderous regime. We must focus on lowering the cost of gas for Florida families without giving comfort to dictators.”
Sen. Bob Menéndez (D-N.J.), the powerful chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also lashed out at the administration over its openings toward the two dictatorships – and it wasn’t the first time he’s done so in recent months..
“From Tehran to Havana to Pyongyang, history shows us negotiations based on unilateral concessions have a failed track record of producing actual changes to the behavior of authoritarian regimes. Giving Maduro a handful of undeserved handouts just so his regime will promise to sit down at a negotiating table is a strategy destined to fail,” Menéndez said in a statement Tuesday.
But the backlash – like the sanctions relief – was somewhat limited.
Democrats are not expected to be competitive around Miami, a region where until recently they were perpetually in the running for two out of three of Florida’s southernmost congressional districts.
Outside of South Florida, Republican messaging on perceived Democratic proclivities toward socialism has been shown to have limited appeal among voters outside the GOP base.
And the Biden administration is taking a holistic view of foreign affairs, with Latin American allies clamoring for openness toward Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua amid larger fights on the international stage.
Officials signaled in background calls about the policy shifts in Cuba and Venezuela they were hopeful the changes would ultimately benefit the residents of each nation. And they signaled that the sanctions could be quickly reversed if either regime appeared to be acting in bad faith.
“These are steps that… are intended to help alleviate the humanitarian suffering that prompts migration from Cuba, and also to advance our interest in supporting the Cuban people,” one senior administration official said, arguing that Cuban Americans and Americans traveling to Cuba could help spread democratic values in the island nation.
With much of the world focused on the ongoing war in Ukraine, the White House this week rolled out reversals of some Trump-era policies toward Venezuela and Cuba. Both nations were pummeled with economic sanctions by the former administration, which viewed them as proof of the consequences of socialism as Cubans and Venezuelans faced food shortages and collapsed economies.
The Biden administration on Monday announced it would allow limited flights into Cuban cities other than Havana, reestablish a family reunification program that had gone dormant, and support efforts to boost the Cuban private sector by supporting more access to U.S. internet services.
On Tuesday, the administration followed up with plans to lift some sanctions on Venezuela in an attempt to foster talks between Nicolas Maduro’s regime and opposition leaders. The administration said it would allow discussions between the Maduro government and Chevron, an American oil company that operates in Venezuela.
The limited openings to Cuba and Venezuela are unlikely to have a large impact on bilateral relations with either country, but could smooth the way for other Latin American leaders to attend the Summit of the Americas being hosted by the Biden administration in June in Los Angeles. A number of leaders had previously said they will not attend, including the presidents of Mexico and Honduras.
And any deal with Cuba will necessarily include a migration aspect, helping reduce the number of Cuban nationals presenting at the southwest border, addressing a more pressing political liability for the Biden administration.
Still, Republicans spent much of the 2020 campaign trying to paint Biden and other Democrats as radicals who wanted to push socialist policies in the U.S. The message was geared especially toward Hispanic voters in Florida, many of whom have roots in socialist countries like Venezuela and Cuba.
The Biden administration’s policy announcements this week appeared to reopen the doors to those attacks.
“Biden has officially surrendered to Latin American dictators. Yesterday, he gives American business to the Cuban regime. Today, he removes sanctions from Maduro in Venezuela to purchase blood-stained oil. We will not forget this November,” tweeted Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.), the daughter of Cuban exiles who flipped a Florida district for the GOP in 2020.
The 2020 Republican Convention featured speakers from Cuba who spoke of the brutal conditions and warned of the dangers of socialism. Then-President Trump traveled repeatedly to Florida, where warnings of socialism were a constant theme.
The attacks proved at least somewhat effective, as Biden and Democrats saw Trump make significant gains among the Hispanic population en route to winning Florida by nearly 400,000 votes.
Trump performed nearly 23 percentage points better in 2020 compared to 2016 in heavily-Hispanic Miami-Dade County.
Recent polls have shown Biden struggling with the Hispanic demographic.
An April Quinnipiac poll showed that just 26 percent of Hispanic voters surveyed approved of the president’s job performance, the lowest mark of any demographic group, potentially serving as a signal that could foreshadow further souring on Biden in places like the Sunshine State.
Source: The Hill