The Cuban-American Right in Policy Towards Cuba: Architects, Puppets or Useful Instruments?

"Although the Cuban-American right has undoubtedly been effective, this is largely a result of its loyal support for such a policy of state, defined by the Cold War until the collapse of the Soviet Union, by Cuba’s model as a challenge to the United States, and by certain exceptional circumstances that favored the Cuban-American right at critical moments".

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According to the common assumption in the United States, the policy towards Cuba has been a matter of domestic politics—not foreign policy—due to the supposed efficacy of the right-wing Cuban-American lobby (e.g., the Cuban American National Foundation), the disproportionate number of senators and congressmen of Cuban origin, and the lucky power of Cuban Americans in federal elections in Florida, a state where only a very thin margin can win an election. Thanks to their economic resources and their links with powerful sectors in the US, this right wing supposedly has the power to define the policy towards the island (Woodfruff, 2006) (LeoGrande, 2013).

This article offers a different interpretation, based principally on the primacy of a policy of state as the decisive factor in the policies toward Cuba. Although the Cuban-American right has undoubtedly been effective, this is largely a result of its loyal support for such a policy of state, defined by the Cold War until the collapse of the Soviet Union, by Cuba’s model as a challenge to the United States, and by certain exceptional circumstances that favored the Cuban-American right at critical moments.  Far from being the architects of the policies toward the island, the Cuban American right has been at most a useful instrument for a state policy that has remained almost intact for six decades, except for tactical changes by different presidents. In fact, the Cuban American right has been successful because it was pushing an open door.

The analysis follows the order of the US presidential administrations from 1959 to the present. For each stage the author briefly examines the national and international context that surrounded the US policy, the steps the US government took for or against a rapprochement, and the extent to which the Cuban-American right does or does not exert a decisive or even important influence over the policy.

Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford: the foundations of the policy are defined

These five administrations were part of the hotbed of the Cold War, something that influenced all US policies, including those toward Cuba.  This stage is key, especially its beginnings with Eisenhower and Kennedy, because it was in this period that the key components of the policy were established, components that exist to this day.

Those key components have been, first, the objective of regime change, and secondly the principal tactics to pursue it: an embargo/blockade, a dirty war until Carter, and the utilization for propaganda of what at the time was called the “Cuban exile.” The objective and the tactics take shape early as a state policy, a shape they retain until today. The Cuban American right did not even play a remotely primary role as a protagonist at that time.

Eisenhower establishes the primary regime change objective in October 1959, when he authorizes the plans for Cuban exiles to conduct a dirty war against the revolutionary government. In support of that war, Radio Swan begins to operate, a station that was the predecessor of today’s Radio and TV Martí. The justification was the accusation that Cuba was a “satellite” of the Soviet Union, and Cuba’s support for other revolutions in the Continent, factors that only lose importance with the end of the Cold War. (Schoultz, 2009). 

Topping off those measures, Eisenhower imposes the embargo/blockade in 1961 to destroy the island’s economy, and breaks diplomatic relations (Schoultz, 2009).  The embargo/blockade is practically the same today, with some ups and downs in its rigor during different administrations, except for the Helms-Burton law, which strengthened it (Cuban, 1992).  

Eisenhower also begins the free entrance to the US of Cubans who wanted to wanted to migrate by way of a “waiver” of visa, first, until the Johnson administration made this exception permanent with the Cuban Adjustment Act in 1966 (Public, 1996).  This tactic of favoring Cubans—unique in the history of the US – does not disappear until the end of the “wet foot/dry foot” policy under Obama.

The goal of the free entry of Cubans was to destroy the island’s economy and overthrow its government, but it also becomes a basis for the then “exiles” to serve as a propaganda tool against the island’s government. Under Eisenhower the “exiles” escape from “totalitarian communism,” following the language of the Cold War.  This does not happen to the same degree with other emigrations from socialist countries, although something similar is happening with Venezuela today.  The image that was created was that of an “oppressed” people, even though a sizable majority of the population supported the revolutionary government.  One cannot underestimate the impact of this propaganda role of the Cuban emigration over public opinion in the US.

Kennedy not only inherits Eisenhower’s plans and premises, but he also adopts and strengthens them.  Although he decides not to intervene directly with US troops during the Bay of Pigs/Playa Girón invasion, he allows it to go forward, and later creates Operation Mongoose of intensified dirty war against Cuba (Kennedy, 2019).  

As a result of the missile crisis of 1962, the US government abandons any intention of invading Cuba directly, in an agreement with the Soviet Union, but persists in supporting the dirty war with émigrés until the Carter administration, who continues with a regime-change policy, but with “soft-power” tactics (Schoultz, 2009). In summary, Kennedy conducts what has already taken form as a policy of state, not one of specific parties or administrations.  

The role of Cuban Americans during this time is not central.  Suffice it to remember what has been reported about “the government in exile” which was to disembark on the island after the victory of the 1961 invasion.  This group was actually quarantined in a secret CIA base in Florida, and the communiques of that “new government” were written and circulated by the CIA, not by the future “president” of Cuba (Rasenberg, 2011) (LeoGrande, 2014)

These characteristics of US policy remain during Johnson’s administration, who worries less about Cuba because the Vietnam war and other issues stifle him, to the point that he decides not to seek re-election for a second term (LeoGrande 2014). 

Nixon follows him and reveals a profound hatred of the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro.  It has been reported that when his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger tried to talk to him about a change with respect to Cuba, Nixon answered that he “did not want him to ever mention it again”  (Haney & Vanderbush, 2005).  Kissinger obeyed quietly, but he continued to pursue conversations with the island in secret (LeoGrande, 2014).  So, the policy towards Cuba changes little during Nixon, except for an agreement to prevent plane hijackings, which the Cuban-American right opposed but could not stop (LeoGrande 2014). The president was also consumed by Vietnam and, above all, by the Watergate scandal that forces him to resign, leaving Ford as president.

During Ford’s short mandate, Kissinger was able to convince him to attempt conversations with Cuba, and certain steps were taken to limit the embargo/blockade, but the presence of Cuban troops in Angola stopped those efforts. That African conflict, of course, is understood as part of the Cold War, which was at the time a decisive determinant of all US state policies, including those toward Cuba.

In summary, during the Johnson, Nixon and Ford mandates, the Cuban American right still does not gain influence beyond its propaganda role. From the beginning of these two decades a state policy towards Cuba is defined, whose principal aspects remain unchanged until today, except for variations depending on the hostility and tactics of different administrations (Democrats or Republicans), in addition to certain important crossroads that favored that right, as we will see below.

Carter: a small rapprochement, but state policy remains unchanged

Carter assumes power with the intention of improving relations between the two countries.  The tactics for regime change are modified in important ways, but the fundamental bases of US policy in the end do not change, even if this was his initial intention (Haney, 2005).

Regime change continues to be the objective, although Carter tries to achieve it through what years later would be called “soft power” or “Track II.”  The support for the dirty war through Cuban Americans is finally abandoned, recognized as useless, and a rapprochement achieves some advance in relations, above all the establishment of “interest sections,” in effect mini-embassies.  Other agreements are also achieved, above all the permission for Cuban Americans to send remittances to their families in Cuba.  Also, as a result of conversations with sectors of the Cuban American emigration in 1978, Cuba frees thousands of prisoners and the US issues 120,000 entry visas for Cuban immigrants during the first year of that opening (Sweig, 2009). This rapprochement is paralyzed by the Cold War, a decisive factor in the state policy towards Cuba from the beginning.  Carter’s government demands that Cuba abandon its policy of support for Angola, Namibia, and insurgencies in several Latin American countries, without success.  Finally, the massive exodus through Mariel—a harsh and very controversial measure of the Cuban government – forces an agreement on emigration, but it also signals the deathblow to the rapprochement.

These measures towards rapprochement were new tactics by a Democratic government, but they followed the same state policy: regime change through an embargo/blockade, and the use of the Cuban emigration for an incessant and largely false propaganda against the government of the island. Only two aspects of this rapprochement could be saved: the interest sections and the beginning of a rapprochement between Cuba and its emigration, the latter a result of a Cuban, not US, initiative.

Absolutely nothing suggests that Cuban Americans influenced Carter’s policy of rapprochement, and they definitely could not stop it. This is not new: even when the US government only decides to soften its tactics in its policy towards Cuba, without modifying its principal objective of overthrowing the government—for example, in Carter’s case, to a certain extent Clinton, and definitely Obama—the extreme-right Cuban American organizations have rarely been able to stop those changes, because their “successes” are based on supporting both the state policy and the government policy. From afar they seemed to have a lot of influence, when in reality they were simply pushing an open door to achieve those “successes”.

Of course, for Cuban Americans to be able to directly influence the policies towards the island, it was necessary that their right-wing organizations achieve a minimum of maturity that would permit them to stop acting like “exiles,” yelling from Miami, so they could begin to act as US citizens.  That maturity began to occur during this period, but it needed substantial help and a very open door during the Reagan administration.

The end of the Carter administration also ends the promising opening towards Cuba, but it leaves intact the objective and the principal tactic of embargo/blockade in the policy of state of the US.  The Cuban American right begins to make its appearance as an actor; its role until then had been primarily one of propaganda.  Their role assumes more importance during the administration of the next president, Ronald Reagan.

Reagan: open doors and promotion of the Cuban American right

The decade of the 1980s marks the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union, of European socialism, and of the Cold War.  During his campaign, Reagan says that “we could blockade Cuba” and similar things (Haney, 2009).  Months before his election, a think tank (Council for Inter-American Security-CIS) had prepared the Santa Fe Document, a document of the extreme right in the United States that became the principal guide for policy towards Latin America of the coming administration and the next one (Documento, 1980).  This document recommended the restoration of a modern version of the Monroe Doctrine for Cuba, and asserted that “if propaganda fails, we should advance a war of national liberation against Castro.”

According to numerous sources, many of the authors and godfathers of this document, later high-level functionaries of the Reagan administration, brought together a group of Cubans, among them Jorge Mas Canosa, to create an organization based on the model of the “American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)”, to lobby on behalf of Cuban Americans.  The result was the Cuban American National Foundation (or, simply, Foundation).  This group was guided in its creation by the Reagan administration, and, from that moment on, all the doors of the Reagan administration, as well as later Bush father’s and to a lesser extent of the Clinton administrations were wide open.  As we will see later, the Foundation became a useful instrument in the policy that Reagan would advance, but they were far from being indispensable (Small, 1980).

An important parenthesis is that AIPAC—the model for the Foundation—owed a great deal of its supposed “influence” to the fact that its message coincided perfectly with the US policy of support for the Israeli right-wing.  The same as the Foundation, AIPAC has had the doors of power wide open for its lobbying activities.

Alexander Haig, the first Reagan Secretary of State, declares that he was “determined to overthrow Castro” and that it would be “an easy victory.”  LeoGrande and Kornbluh assert that Haig told Reagan that “you simply give me the OK, and I will turn that little country…into a parking lot.” (LeoGrande, 2014).  These quotations reflect the policy of Reagan and his team at the beginning of his administration. The new president reverses practically all the measures taken by Carter, except the interest sections, and establishes Radio Martí.  Several Cuban Americans occupy important positions in the Department of State, and Mas Canosa becomes the head of Radio Martí in his role as director of the Board that governed the station, until his death in 1997.

The apparent “success” for two decades of the Foundation as a lobby organization, the effectiveness of Mas Canosa in raising funds, the support of practically all the right-wing power sectors among Cuban Americans, and of both Democrats and Republicans are presented as evidence of the supposed power of the Cuban American right to control policy towards the island (Fonzi, 1993). In reality, the Foundation simply joins with money, astuteness and a discourse with activities that fit the existing policy.

Bush father:  continuity with Reagan and maximum Cuban American influence during a different international context

Bush (father) assumes power in 1990 with the same policy as his predecessor, but a very different international context forces him to pressure Cuba even more.  During his mandate European socialism collapses—they were Cuba’s primary commercial partners—and the island went into its “Special Period in Times of Peace.”  Everyone predicts that the Cuban government will soon collapse.  For example, Bush declares that “Castro shows signs of desperation,” and that he “will not survive this.” (Haney, 2005). The end of the Cold War, along with the accords that are resolving the conflicts in Southern Africa and Central America also reduce the importance of the island within US foreign policy.  Also, the new international panorama consumes Bush’s attention.

Cuba loses a great deal of its previous importance in US foreign policy affairs, and the Foundation enlarges its participation in politics in this climate, occupying a vacuum on the Cuba issue which lasts almost until today. The Cuban America right during that time also begins to accumulate in Southern Florida political power at the federal level.  From the mid-80s they had been winning elections at the state level and in Miami-Dade County, and in 1989, coinciding with the election of Bush (father), Ileana Ross Lehtinen wins a congressional seat.  She was a member of the Foundation, and her campaign manager was Jeb Bush, the son of the president and brother of the governor of Texas and future president.  Ross Lehtinen is soon joined by two new Cuban American congressmen, Mario Diaz Balart, Republican, and Robert Menendez, Democrat.  Both are intransigent anti-Castro advocates.  The doors open even more to the US centers of power. (Eckstein, 2012).

With these electoral wins, and the momentum provided by Reagan and Bush, the Foundation enters its period of greatest influence, until Clinton’s first mandate.  Bush’s politics were like Reagan’s when, at the beginning of 1992, two Democratic representatives, Robert Torricelli, congressman from New Jersey, and Bob Graham, senator from Florida submit a bill for a Cuban Democracy Act (Torricelli Law).  This law begins the codification of the embargo into law, something that is completed a few years later with the Helms-Burton Act.  The law codifies the almost complete prohibition of US subsidiary companies to trade freely with Cuba, a measure with extraterritorial implications that begins to wrest from the president his executive power over foreign policy toward Cuba, and grants it to the legislature.

The participation of the Foundation in politics, and through them of the Cuban American right, reaches its peak during the administration of Bush (father) and the early stages of Clinton’s term. TV Martí goes into effect during Clinton.  The Foundation also strengthens its links of influence to Democrats, especially Robert Toricelli, through the then Democratic and Cuban American congressman, Robert Menendez, also from New Jersey.

Even more important, the Torricelli Law is approved, which makes it more difficult to eliminate the embargo/blockade.  Bush’s mandate ends, but now with the embargo/Blockade codified into law.  Despite the apparent influence of the Foundation in politics, these measures continue to be entirely in accord with the policy of the state, in place almost since 1959: regime change and embargo/Blockade.  Also, as in earlier administrations, and despite his hostility towards Cuba, Bush attempts secret conversations with Cuba on several occasions, especially during the second half of his mandate, something that the Cuban American right cannot stop (LeoGrande, 2014).

Clinton:  a little bit of everything, and regime change is codified

Clinton opens his mandate with an international environment that is very different from what Bush faced, with the end of the Cold War, Cuba in the middle of the Special Period, and the expectations that the collapse of the Cuban government is imminent. Congressman Torricelli proclaims that “the collapse is inevitable.”  In reality, Cuba has lost its importance within the enormous agenda of international issues of the US government.  Warren Christopher, the first Secretary of State under Clinton, declares that “Cuba is not within the first fifty issues of concern for the administration.”

Without consulting with the Foundation or any other Cuban Americans, Clinton accidentally begins his administration, as related to Cuba, with a controversy around the nomination of a Cuban American for the post of Assistant Secretary for Hemispheric Affairs in the State Department. The Foundation exerts its influence and forces the appointment, instead, of the former principal assistant to Toricelli. In the meantime, the team around Clinton favors—although quietly at first—Track II or “soft power” as a policy towards Cuba, not the favorite approach of the Foundation. It is only later that it becomes known that the new Assistant Secretary also prefers that policy, a development that is somewhat ironic given the influence of the Foundation (Schoultz, 2009). 

The driving force of efforts to influence the vacuum surrounding Cuba policy begins to be displaced towards Congress, with Torricelli and his allies (the ultra-right senator Jesse Helms and congressman Dan Burton), along with the Cuban American congressional representatives, who then fill the vacuum around Cuba policy.  The Cuban American power in the legislature finds expression in a form that is completely aligned with the traditional state policy of many years. 

In the summer of 1994, the so-called “balseros” (rafters) begin to arrive.  Clinton initially stops them when he can on the high seas, the first time since the triumph of the Revolution that the US does this. This move by the administration is taken without any previous consultation with Cuban Americans or their congressional representatives.  One cannot forget that the issue of uncontrolled and supposedly excessive immigration is a matter of national importance, and the “balseros” at that moment are emblematic of that issue for the whole nation. This goes outside of the narrow margins of policy towards Cuba.  The interests of the state—that is, immigration—force Clinton to intercept the Cubans on the high seas and take them to the Guantanamo Naval Base, despite the furious protests of the Foundation and Cuban Americans in Congress.

And there is more: despite the opinion of Cuban Americans and their congressional representatives, in May of 1995, after long negotiations with Cuba, Clinton signs an immigration accord that will allow the interception of Cubans on the high seas, and starts the “wet foot/dry foot” policy, that guarantees the privileges the Cubans had always had, but only those who touch US soil (dry feet).  The agreement also obligates the US to issue 20,000 immigration visas a year to Cuban migrants, in order to channel the emigration through legal and safe methods. The Foundation rejects the agreement; after all, the rafts and other illegal migration from the island are a veritable propaganda gift.  But Clinton then meets with Mas Canosa to appease him. He offers more restrictions to the visits of Cuban Americans to the island and to remittances, as well as more hours of transmission of Radio and TV Marti.  But Clinton refuses to grant the principal demands of the Foundation, which were to cancel the immigration agreement and to establish a naval blockade of the island.  The Foundation, considered by some to be almost omnipotent, simply loses when it comes to a need of the state, as is the issue of illegal immigration.

In the midterm elections of 1994 Clinton finds himself alone in power, because the Democrats lose the majority in both the House and the Senate.  Jesse Helms, ultra-right senator and former segregationist from South ,Carolina becomes the new head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Senate, and Dan Burton, another ultra-right congressman from California assumes a position of influence in the equivalent committee of the House. These changes arise due to national political trends. They have little or nothing to do with the issue of Cuba, but they are welcomed by the Cuban American right. With the obsession that has characterized the relation of the US with “little Cuba”, both chambers were impatient because the government had not collapsed as was expected, and they support a bill to increase the pressure on the island, called the Helms-Burton Act.  This proposal is developed without the participation of the Foundation, although the Cuban American representatives in Congress took part. The law codifies—taking away the presidential prerogative—all the regulations of the embargo/blockade, in addition to defining conditions that Cuba must meet before sanctions are lifted.  It also permits judicial demands against Cuba by Cuban Americans, so they can receive compensation for their properties which had been nationalized early in the Revolution, as well as other prohibitions related to nationalized assets. The law also permits the president to freeze these sections of the law every six months, however, something that Clinton, Bush, and Obama did, until Trump decides to allow them to go into effect.

The history of the Helms-Burton Act is complicated: the first attempt to pass it failed because of the opposition of the Clinton administration and Democrats in Congress, along with the absence of enthusiasm on the part of Republicans. By codifying the embargo as law, the presidency would lose all its remaining power in relation to the policy towards Cuba, and several portions of the law promise serious conflicts with other countries because of their extra-territoriality. The debate touched on issues of broad national interest—the powers of the executive versus those of the legislature, far beyond the questions of Cuba policy.

Then everything changes in March of 1996. Cuba shoots down two planes of “Brothers to the Rescue” that were violating Cuban air space, and four crewmen die. Clinton is politically forced to sign the bill as law, which had moved rapidly through both chambers because of the national climate that rejected the downing of the planes. The co-author of the law, Burton, triumphally declares that the law will mark “the end of Castro,” although some 25 years have elapsed since then.

During his second mandate, Clinton advances his “soft power” politics, to the disgust of the Foundation and the Cuban Americans in Congress.  He also pursues a modest policy of engagement, including flights to the island, and support for the legislative efforts that culminate in a law permitting the sale of agricultural and medical goods to Cuba.  This was the first legislative defeat that the Cuban American right experienced regarding Cuba policy (Hanes, 2005), although the Foundation is successful in introducing into the law a requirement that the goods must be paid in cash, and prior to the delivery of the products.  Despite this requirement, in the next few years Cuba purchases hundreds of millions of dollars of products under that law.

With respect to Cuba, the Clinton presidential mandate actually ends with the controversy concerning Elián González, the 6-year-old boy rescued from the sea after the accidental sinking of the boat in which his mother, who does not survive, was bringing him to Miami in 1999.  The Foundation opposed the return of the boy to his father in Cuba, and even though they succeed in mobilizing the Cuban American right, Clinton’s authorities arrange for his return to Cuba. The fervor of the Cuban American right supposedly becomes a factor in Gore’s defeat in the presidential elections, but they also considerably weaken the propaganda value of that right wing in the eyes of the American public, who see in the opposition a violation of the law and of the parental rights of a father for his son.

In summary, during Clinton’s terms the embargo/blockade is strengthened as it completely becomes part of a law.  With a vacuum in the Cuba issue, the center of gravity of anti-Castro activities moves to the Congress, especially to the Cuban American congressional representatives and their right-wing allies. The Foundation’s influence declines with the death of Mas Canosa in 1997, and the policy of state remains the same as in the 60s: regime change with an embargo/blockade.

Bush son: hard line once again

Bush (son) comes to power in 2001, when the mirage of the collapse of the Cuban government has almost disappeared, although the triumphalism of the end of the Cold War remains.  The president is soon overcome by the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, and its after-effect of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Cuba continues to have relatively little importance in light of the international challenges that Trump faces, but in Southern Florida, he inherits the mobilization of the right because of the Elián case, as well as the connections with the Bush family, to increase his advantage among Cuban Americans in the election. Supposedly the mobilization around Elián also helps Bush win the influence of the Cuban American right in the municipalities where the controversial vote count takes place.  The result is a victory for Bush by a very narrow margin in Florida, and thus an electoral victory, even though Gore wins the popular vote. The Cuban American right boasts that they gave the victory to Bush, yet another example of their propaganda value.

The policies of Bush (son) towards Cuba return to those of his father, or worse, adamantly opposed to any rapprochement.  In fact, his brother Jeb was up for re-election in 2003 as governor. The president eliminates the minor Clinton measures of engagement to guarantee that the Cuban American right supports Jeb. The president also names several Cuban Americans to positions of intermediate importance in the government, and, lastly, he creates a commission similar in its content to the Platt Amendment—whereby a group of “experts” would define when the “transition” in Cuba, including the form of its new government, are acceptable to the US (Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba) (Haney, 2005).

After Mas Canosa’s death in 1997, his son Jorge Mas Santos assumes the presidency of the Foundation.  A couple of years later, some of the members leave and form another group, reportedly because of Mas Santos’ intention to adopt a variant of “soft power” in the organization’s anti-Castro efforts. Both organizations continue to lobby and collect funds for electoral campaigns, but neither reaches the relevance that the Foundation had during its heyday in the 80s-90s.

The anti-Castro initiative had almost completely moved to the Congress.  Cuban Americans add two new congressmen and for a while two senators, all extreme right with respect to Cuba. They become a hardline group towards Cuba.  Also, their attention turns to some extent away from the Cuba issue, which has lost importance in the broader foreign policy arena, and towards cultivating the Cuban American vote in Southern Florida and using the right-wing as the spokesmen for anti-Castro advocacy.

Obama: everything changes?

During the 2008 campaign, the enthusiasm of the Obama effort seemed capable of changing everything, including the policy towards Cuba. Obama even breaks the mold of political campaigns in southern Florida with a speech in the heart of Miami when he declares that it is time to change a policy that has failed for 50 years.  Hillary Clinton, his opponent during the primaries, puts forward a different view, a “hard line” towards Cuba.

Obama wins close to half of the Cuban American votes in his first presidential campaign, something that shows that many Cuban Americans are not aligned with extreme right with respect to the island. Yet in that same election, two Cuban Americans win Senate seats, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.  Together with one senator and four Cuban American congressional representatives already in Congress, this confirms that the influence of the Cuban American right has moved completely to the legislative arena.  Groups like the Foundation and the Cuban Liberty Council continue, but seriously weakened.

During his first term, Obama is contradictory in his policy toward the island. He takes some steps to soften the embargo/blockade, but he offers scant support to diverse legislative initiatives to allow travel, tourism and commerce with Cuba.  He also offers increased support to the “people to people” programs, in other words, Track II of the Toricelli law.  On the other hand, the bulk of the prohibitions of the embargo, such as the fines on the banks that have dealings with Cuba actually increase, and
Cuba stays in the list of countries that support terrorism. A more fundamental change does not yet come about.

The Cuban American right, largely through Menendez, blocks as much as possible the sale of foodstuffs and medicines to Cuba, but, apparently, neither the power of the Cuban Americans in Congress, nor of the weakened lobbying groups, can stop these modest engagement measures of the president. The right must also abandon their posture of accusing as traitors all who visit the island or send remittances.  There are already hundreds of thousands who do so every year.

The policy towards Cuba in the first half of Obama’s second term continues in the same vein. What nobody knew was that the two countries had been having secret conversations since 2013 (LeoGrande, 2014).  These culminate in the agreements announced in December 2014: freedom for the contractor Alan Gross imprisoned in Cuba and for the last three Cuban prisoners in US jails, followed in subsequent months by the formal establishment of diplomatic relations, the elimination of Cuba from the list of sponsors of terrorism, and in a bit less than one year, more than a dozen bilateral agreements in matters of common interest. What is most notable is that the Cuban American right could not stop this new policy of the Obama government, despite the supposed influence of their legislators in Congress.  The doors of the machinery of policy formation had closed, and the Cuban American right was left outside.

Trump (¿2016-?): hard line again

It is still too early to say how far Trump will go with his policy of growing hostility towards Cuba.  Practically all the advances by Obama have been dismantled, and practically all that remains is to return to the pre-Carter era, without even the interest sections. But one thing is evident, the Cuban American right has not been a determining factor in this process, although several Cuban Americans occupy senior positions in the implementation of the policies.  Apparently, the entire Trump team, including the Wall Street magnates in his administration, do not need a Cuban American lobby to support them. In the past, such a lobby was convenient, but not essential.


This article asked whether the Cuban American right has played the role of architects or puppets in US policy towards Cuba.  The answer is that they have fundamentally played the role of a useful instrument, but have not been a determining factor. What exists is a policy of state that was forged during the Eisenhower and Kennedy years in 1959-1960, strengthened during the Johnson, Nixon and Ford administrations, and still remains intact until today in its objective of regime change and its principal tactic, which has been the embargo/blockade against the island.

This conclusion is based, above all, on the following: in those moments when important changes occur in Cuba policy—and these only in the tactics—the Cuban American right has not played the role of architects when those changes were more hostile towards Cuba, and they could not stop them when they sought more engagement with the island. The latter is clearly seen during the period of engagement that Carter tried, during Clinton’s second term, and, of course, during the measures that Obama undertook.  The Cuban American right could not stop any of those changes in policy.  And the policy of the state did not need a Cuban American right-wing lobby when Trump dismantled most of Obama’s measures.

There is no question that the Foundation, at its peak, and more recently the legislators of Cuban origin, have taken ample advantage on several occasions of the open doors provided by several administrations, as well as the relative vacuum in Cuba policy that followed the end of the Cold War, but that right wing has not been a determining factor in defining or implementing the policies, which were policies of state, first, and only later of different governments. Their power has been fundamentally “borrowed,” so to speak.  In other words, through open doors and the promotion by powerful sectors, not through their own power over policy.  In at least two occasions, the “balseros” crisis and the downing of the Brothers to the Rescue planes, the Cuban American right benefited astutely from lucky circumstances that were favorable to their goals.

In summary, the principal conclusion of this article is that there has been a policy of state—regime change—from the beginning of the conflict in 1959, with a principal tactic—the embargo/blockade.  When a government intended to harden the tactics against Cuba, the Cuban American right pushed through open doors and played (and plays) a supporting role.  When it has been a matter of governments that intended a policy of more engagement, the Cuban American right has only been able to blunt those policies somewhat, but not stop them.




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Translation: Manuel R. Gómez (el propio autor)

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