On September 1, 2003, the Miami Herald reported that, “Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry…appeared to shift his stance on the trade embargo with Cuba on Sunday, telling a national television audience that he now supports keeping sanctions in place. Kerry’s remarks, delivered on NBC’s Meet the Press, seemed to contradict statements he made during a 2000 interview with the Boston Globe that a reevaluation of the embargo was ‘way overdue.’”
This was a startling departure for a senator who has a nearly 20-year history of sponsoring or voting for numerous bills to ease economic and travel restrictions on Cuba. What had caused Kerry’s change of heart? Had Castro committed some astonishing new atrocity that finally caused Kerry to cry “Enough!”? No, it had been pretty much business as usual for the island despot in the weeks leading up to Kerry’s apparent U-turn. Castro hadn’t executed, tortured, or imprisoned innocents on any grander scale than has been his normal practice. True, six months earlier, Castro had imprisoned more than 70 journalists and human-rights supporters, a move that had elicited furious protests from across the globe and censure even from those who have a more “enlightened” view of the Castro regime. But there’s no evidence that Kerry was among the infuriated.
Regardless, no other outrages committed by the Castro regime had ever before provoked Kerry to toughen his stance. In fact, in March 1996, just one week after Castro’s air force had shot down two civilian airplanes piloted by Cuban Americans, the U.S. Senate responded by overwhelmingly passing the Cuban Liberty and Economic Solidarity Act to strengthen economic sanctions against Cuba. Kerry was one of only a handful of senators to vote against the bill. And over the years, while Castro was summarily executing or imprisoning dissidents like Oscar Biscet and Juan Carlos Leiva and drowning women and children in the infamous sinking of the “13th of March” tugboat in which 41 people died, Kerry was introducing or supporting numerous bills to ease sanctions on Cuba.
No, it wasn’t a reaction to Castro’s depravity that stiffened Kerry’s position. The reason for Kerry’s shift was much more prosaic.
As revealed in the February 22, 2004, edition of the Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, Kerry made the statement about keeping sanctions in place, “after meeting with (Cuban) exile leaders in South Florida.”
Florida will again be a pivotal battleground state in the presidential election and the Cuban-American vote is one of the keys to winning the state. There are approximately 500,000 Cuban-American voters in Florida and they strongly trend Republican. But as the Miami Herald reported after last week’s Florida primary, Kerry plans to go after the Cuban-American vote. That means he must consider the perspectives of a vital group of voters, some of whom have experienced Castro’s brutality firsthand.
Whether Kerry can make inroads on the Cuban-American vote is uncertain. Equally uncertain is how long he will maintain his new stance, given his long legacy of a more liberalized policy toward Castro. Indeed, more recently, Kerry appeared to revert back to his old stance on Cuba, telling the Associated Press that he is, “not prepared to lay down conditions at this time for lifting the embargo because I believe we need a major review of U.S. policy toward Cuba.” (Emphasis added.) This harkens back to the statement Kerry made to the Boston Globe in July 2000 in which he stated that re-evaluation of U.S. policy toward Cuba was “way overdue” and the only reason the U.S. hadn’t reevaluated its policy is “the politics of Florida.” In fact, that same year Kerry supported an amendment to reevaluate U.S. policy toward Cuba. And as recently as four months ago, Kerry cosponsored legislation that would have, with limited exceptions, prohibited the president from regulating or prohibiting travel to Cuba.
The Miami Herald’s Peter Wallsten notes that Kerry’s temporizing on the Cuba issue continues until today. Kerry ultimately acknowledges that, “I haven’t resolved what to do (about Cuba). I’m going to have to talk to a lot more people in Florida.”
Cuban Americans aren’t the only group watching Kerry’s flip-flops regarding Castro’s Cuba. There are approximately 1,000,000 Nicaraguan, Venezuelan, Columbian, and Peruvian immigrants in south Florida. Some are less than thrilled with politicians who have “sophisticated” positions concerning communist regimes. A sizeable number of Nicaraguans fled the Sandanista regime of Daniel Ortega (and they may remember Kerry as the Senate’s leading cheerleader for that regime). Many Venezuelans are not particularly fond of Castro’s pal, Hugo Chavez. And more than a few Columbians and Peruvians remember the terror inflicted by the vicious Marxist guerillas of FARC and Shining Path.
The politics of Florida are much more complex than one issue. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how many more positions Senator Kerry will take on Cuba between now and the election.
–Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.