As Obama visits Cuba, signs of a shift back home

President Obama's arrival in Cuba Sunday highlights how his decision to reestablish ties is gaining some bipartisan momentum.

Ramon Espinosa/AP
A poster features portraits of Cuba's President Raúl Castro (l.) and US President Barack Obama and reads in Spanish "Welcome to Cuba" outside a restaurant in Havana, Cuba, Thursday. Mr. Obama is scheduled to travel to the island on Sunday.

When President Obama touches down in Havana Sunday, Rep. Tom Epper – a first-term Republican from Minnesota – will be on Air Force One with him.

And Mr. Epper won’t be the only Republican accompanying the first United States president to visit Cuba in 88 years. Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford will also be among the invited guests for the three-day trip.

Their presence suggests something beyond a shift in Washington toward Cuba. It speaks to the changing face of the Republican approach to Cuba. And it shows the extent to which Mr. Obama’s decision in December 2014 to reestablish diplomatic relations with Havana – labeled bold and provocative at the time – is evolving into one of Obama’s more bipartisan foreign-policy initiatives.

The Iran nuclear deal and the president’s Syria policy still come in for stern Republican criticism. But the Cuba rapprochement – certain to figure prominently in Obama’s legacy – is another story.

“What we’re seeing is a pretty significant change in bipartisan politics in Washington as it relates to Cuba,” says Alana Tummino, who heads the Cuba working group at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas in New York. “There are a growing number of representatives and senators on both sides of the aisle who are coming forward and saying, “What we’ve been dong for over five decades hasn’t been working, we have to take a fresh look at this.”

The factors prompting more Republicans to side with Obama on Cuba are not new, but they are gaining steam.

First among them is the position that the 54-year-old embargo has not worked – that blocking trade and diplomatic relations with the Castro regime has not benefited the Cuban people. Pressure from the US agribusiness sector and the tourism industry to open commercial ties has also produced converts among pro-business Republicans.

Another key factor is the gradual passing of the ferociously anti-Castro Cuban-American old guard. This week’s stunning defeat of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in his home state’s presidential primary was further evidence that Republican voters – even in a Cuban-American stronghold like Florida – are less and less energized by the “isolate Cuba” approach.

Senator Rubio is a harsh critic of Obama’s opening to Cuba and has said that, if anything, the embargo should be tightened, not lifted. He was soundly defeated by businessman Donald Trump, who was on record supporting Obama’s shift in Cuba policy before more recently saying he would press for “a much better deal.”

Growing bipartisan support for engagement with Cuba does not mean that opposition is melting away. Despite the efforts of members of Congress such as Representative Epper, not even Obama expects to see the embargo lifted by the end of this year.

But Obama’s objective is to make his Cuba policy “irreversible” no matter who occupies the Oval Office next year, said White House officials reviewing the president’s Cuba trip with reporters this week. Obama himself has said he expects the embargo will be lifted – but under his successor and not on his watch.

Opponents of Obama’s Cuba policy say congressional resistance to lifting the embargo remains firm and is only weakening among a few.

“The United States used to support the notion of a democratic transition in Cuba, but now what we have is a radical shift to a policy that will only reinforce the hold on power of the hemisphere’s last repressive military dictatorship,” says Ana Quintana, Latin America policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “We’re definitely seeing support for some sort of change, but I don’t think we’ll see a significant surge of support in Congress for a policy that does not have at its center the freedom of the Cuban people.”

Statistics from Cuba on everything from political detentions to government closings of churches do not support the notion that engagement is leading to greater political and economic freedoms, Ms. Quintana says. Detentions of dissidents, which surpassed 8,600 last year, are proceeding at a faster pace this year, she says, while last year the government demolished more than 100 churches, she adds.

Cuban government commitments to expand Internet access are not sufficient evidence of a political evolution, Quintana says. Cubans abandoning the island for the US in the tens of thousands – risking harsh detention conditions – are not doing it “for lack of access to Facebook – it’s due to the lack of freedom.”

A similar groundswell for a shift in Cuba policy took place in the early 2000s, with a bipartisan congressional working group growing to about 50 members before losing steam. The current group, which includes Epper, has about a dozen members.

What’s different today is the rapid rise in travel to Cuba by Americans, from private individuals to business people, says Ms. Tummino.

“Little by little, the Americans going to Cuba, eating and sleeping in Cubans’ homes and supporting the growing number of small businesses there, are going to have an impact in Cuba.”

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