Could presidential politics screw up America’s engagement with Cuba?

The Cuban flag flies above its US embassy for the first time since 1961.
The Cuban flag flies above its US embassy for the first time since 1961.
Image: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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Hillary Clinton went to Florida today and blasted her Republican opponents in the US presidential race for their support of an embargo and travel ban on Cuba—a move that might complicate efforts to end the island nation’s American ostracization.

“The Cuban people have waited long enough for progress to come,” she said in a speech to college students in Miami. “Even many Republicans on Capitol Hill are starting to recognize the urgency of moving forward.  It’s time for their leaders to either get on board or get out of the way. The Cuba embargo needs to go, once and for all.”

Indeed, support for ending the five decade embargo on Cuba is broad in the US, including  47% of Republican voters. Many interest groups that often line up with Republican politicians—including the business community and farmers—support lifting the embargo as well. Amendments to temporarily lift the embargo handily passed the Republican-dominated Senate appropriations committee this week.

That kind of comity hasn’t always been the case. As Republican contender Jeb Bush’s campaign immediately pointed out, Clinton supported the embargo in the past. But the change in public opinion on the issue gives Clinton—and other politicians—space to reconsider their views of a US policy that has yet to change Cuba’s repressive political regime. Many Republican leaders in Congress haven’t veered from their position, however; nor have their presidential candidates, besides the libertarian outlier Rand Paul.

“The Obama-Clinton policy is rooted in a false narrative that paints the embargo as a relic of the Cold War,” Bush, the former Florida governor—who has received millions in campaign funds from pro-embargo donors—said in a statement. ”They claim to want to free Cuba from the past, but they misunderstand the present. The Cuban people are not imprisoned by the past, they are imprisoned by the Castro regime.”

The danger for Democrats is that if Cuban relations get caught between the two parties during a presidential race, Republicans who are sympathetic to lifting the embargo may have a change of heart—just as conservative policy ideas became anathema to the GOP after they were endorsed by US president Barack Obama. In other words, if Clinton is for it, the GOP base might turn against it.

Engage Cuba, a bipartisan group of political operatives lobbying for normalization of US relations with Cuba on behalf of US business, is ground-zero for this kind of conflict. One of its founders is Luis Miranda, a Democratic operative who helped roll out Obama’s policy as a White House spokesperson; another senior adviser is Stephen Law, formerly the top staff to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. Law runs a “Super PAC” that will spend millions in support of Republican candidates this year.

“We obviously can’t control what campaigns do on this issue, but at Engage Cuba we believe a positive, bipartisan approach has the best potential to neutralize opposition and move the normalization process forward,” Law tells Quartz.

The fear? That a negative, partisan approach could lead to gridlock, or, worse, roll back this historic opening entirely.

Find Quartz’s special, four-part series on the US-Cuba opening here.