Paul Ryan has a track record on Cuba that is likely to frustrate the politically powerful Cuban-American community.
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, foreignpolicyblogs.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will spend this weekend campaigning in Florida, long a power player in the realm of swing states. Representative Ryan’s success there will depend mainly upon his appeal to two voting groups: seniors and Hispanics. This includes the Cuban-American community.
Following the announcement of Ryan as Romney’s running mate and a media flurry to delve the depths of who Ryan is and what policies can be expected of him, it quickly became clear that by bringing on Paul Ryan, the Romney campaign sought to clearly define the presidential race as a referendum on economic issues – the debt, financial regulation, taxes, the budget. Ryan did not have much in the way of foreign policy experience, it seemed.
But in fact, Ryan has a track record on Cuba that will largely frustrate an otherwise dependably Republican Cuban-American base in Florida: he has been an opponent of the US embargo on Cuba, standing up against the standard party line on the issue. The liberal journalist Jim Fallows (of the Atlantic) even goes so far as to call him “brave” on Cuba policy. Yet as a congressional representative from the Midwest, where trade with Cuba directly benefits the agricultural sector, taking such a stand is far easier to do than it is when standing before a Cuban-American voting bloc.
… Or Cuban-American colleagues, it turns out. In 2002, Ryan told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “The embargo doesn’t work. It is a failed policy. It was probably justified when the Soviet Union existed and posed a threat through Cuba. I think it’s become more of a crutch for Castro to use to repress his people. All the problems he has, he blames the American embargo.” In another interview in 2008, he asked: “if we’re going to have free trade with China, why not Cuba?” But a statement from Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen now says that Ryan more recently spent time with Cuban-American representatives in order to learn “the true nature of the Castro regime, and unlike the Obama-Biden administration, which has appeased and emboldened the Castro regime, the Cuba policy of a Romney-Ryan administration will be clear: no accommodation, no appeasement. A Romney-Ryan administration will place maximum sanctions pressure on the regime and support the brave pro-democracy movement on the island.”
The switch could have caused some whiplash if it were not so completely predictable from a campaign standpoint. There’s little political capital gained on a Republican ticket from taking an anti-embargo stance, and there’s a critical voting base that would be turned off by it. Meanwhile, there’s nothing politically risky for Republicans about sticking to the hard-line stance on Cuba.
In the end, it’s not likely that any of this will matter much once the campaign is over, even if the Romney-Ryan team wins. Romney is not likely to bother reversing Obama administration changes to travel and remittances, which have been received mostly positively by the American public, and Ryan has no reason (nor past precedent) to push for such a reversal. There are too many global challenges that will take precedence over attention to Cuba policy, as they always do.
But for now, and for this weekend, Romney and Ryan had better stick to script.
– Melissa Lockhart Fortner is Senior External Affairs Officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy and Cuba blogger at the Foreign Policy Association. Read her blog, and follow her on Twitter @LockhartFortner.