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Democrats may be learning the wrong lessons from their disastrous 2020 electoral losses in Florida, and it could risk warping President-elect Joe Biden’s Latin America agenda before he even takes office.
The conventional wisdom is that President Donald Trump succeeded in South Florida by branding his opponents as socialists who would go easy on leftist dictators in Latin America and import their policies to the United States. While the autopsies of the 2020 election results are still underway, that conclusion does not adequately explain Democrats’ losses.
It can be tempting to listen to the loudest voices in the room, but continuing to spend extraordinary political capital to appeal to foreign policy hardliners is not the key to winning Florida back. In fact, polling suggests Democrats could actually improve their standing in the state by leaning into their pragmatic approach to the region.
In the meantime, by decoupling the Democratic Party’s foreign policy agenda in Latin America from a small community of Florida hardliners, the incoming administration could pursue a more productive approach that reflects the actual priorities of voters among the Cuban-American diaspora and advances U.S. interests. Doing so would improve U.S. foreign policy without further weakening Democrats’ electoral position.
In 2016, Donald Trump campaigned heavily in Florida on the promise of reversing President Obama’s policy on Cuba. As president, he continued to frame Cuba policy in binary terms—full engagement or maximum pressure—with the goal of winning Florida again in 2020. Yet many of President Trump’s presumptions about Cuba policy and Florida politics were misguided.
Candidates have long emphasized foreign policy when campaigning in Florida, yet data shows that Cuban-American voters rarely name Cuba policy as an important factor in determining their vote for president. In the highly regarded 2020 Florida International University Cuba poll, Cuban-American voters in Miami-Dade County listed Cuba as the least important of the six policy concerns they were asked about. Indeed, initial 2020 exit polls do not suggest foreign policy was a key concern for Florida voters.
These voter trends should not be surprising. In his 2012 reelection campaign, President Obama won a record share of the Cuban-American vote. Four years later, Hillary Clinton, who supported Obama’s Cuba policy, also performed well in South Florida, including in heavily Cuban areas.
This is not merely a concern for political operatives in Miami. Misguided ideas about Florida’s Latinos beget misguided policies toward Latin America. President Trump, for example, went so far in undoing Obama’s Cuba policy that he adopted measures—including massive reductions in consular services in Havana, new travel prohibitions, and remittance restrictions—that were so severe that a significant number of Cuban-Americans in South Florida opposed them. His policies, however, did nothing to dislodge the Cuban regime.
The Biden administration should adopt a thoughtful, evidence-based approach to Cuba policy, and should do so by engaging all stakeholders—not just the loudest, most hardline voices. President-elect Biden has already signaled that he would reverse the Trump administration’s travel and remittances bans, rightly arguing that these measures inflict harm on the Cuban people and do little to challenge the Cuban regime.
As President-elect Biden reconsiders Cuba policy, he should not feel hemmed in by political pressure in Florida. In his campaign, he made clear any negotiations with the Cuban government would include demands for progress on human rights and the release of political prisoners. Should Raúl Castro and Miguel Díaz-Canel refuse, the Cuban regime would have to answer to its own people for the economically disastrous status quo.
Reengaging with Cuba—while demanding progress on human rights and economic liberties—would not only be palatable in South Florida, it would also benefit Democrats in other key battlegrounds. Greater trade with Cuba, particularly in agricultural and medical goods, would provide economic gains to Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.
A more nuanced understanding of Latinos in South Florida would also provide the new administration with the opportunity to recalibrate U.S. policy toward Venezuela, where the current authoritarian dictator has overseen an economic collapse that has produced more than five million refugees.
The Biden administration should separate policy toward Cuba and Venezuela. Although Cuba and Venezuela depend on each other for political cover, security, and economic support, the Trump administration exaggerated their ties for electoral purposes. During his most recent campaign, President Trump exploited the view of many Cuban-Americans that the fall of President Nicolás Maduro would help topple the Cuban regime. As an electoral bonus, he also pandered to the sizeable, conservative Colombian-American community in South Florida, that supports efforts to hamstring ‘Castro-Chavismo,’ many of whom see President Maduro’s downfall as a solution to the challenges of hosting Venezuelan migrants.
For many analysts, President Trump’s success in Florida validated this more divisive strategy. But President-elect Biden could win over most of these voters without replicating President Trump’s approach. For example, he has signaled support for Colombia to help care for Venezuelan refugees, and he has shown interest in pressing for the rights of Cubans without using the Venezuelan crisis as a cudgel against the Cuban regime.
In addressing Venezuela, the largest, and one of the most underfunded, humanitarian crises in history, the Biden administration should marshal an adequate international response. Domestically, he should follow through on his campaign pledge to grant Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans. Such policies would help Venezuelans without hurting Democrats in Florida.
As vice president, Joe Biden pushed for individual sanctions against Venezuelans, and he has since signaled that, as president, he will pursue both individual and multilateral sanctions. Without fear of ramifications in Florida, Biden could go further and pursue negotiations with the Maduro regime, using the leverage from U.S. sanctions to aggressively push for free and fair elections.
President-elect Biden should also broaden the U.S. approach to Latin America to include issues—from COVID-19 relief to climate change—that tend to fall lower on the agenda in Florida. The region is suffering, after years of slow growth and unprecedented challenges stemming from the pandemic, and President-elect Biden—with his deep knowledge of Latin America—has a chance to strengthen partnerships and promote sustainable economic recovery.
That will only happen should Democrats head the right lessons from their bruising losses in the 2020 election. South Florida’s Latinos will remain important stakeholders in upcoming American politics, and their voices should be especially heard when considering Latin America policy. The path to electoral success, however, does not require replicating Trump’s myopic Latin America agenda.
Benjamin Talus is currently pursuing a Doctor of International Affairs degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He previously served as senior policy advisor for Congresswoman Donna Shalala, where he oversaw her legislative agenda on issues related to foreign affairs. Prior to working on the Hill, Ben served as policy director on Shalala’s successful 2018 campaign to represent Florida’s 27th Congressional District. He graduated from Georgetown University with a bachelor’s degree in foreign service.