Photo: Employees process vote-by-mail ballots for the midterm election at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in Miami. Source: Lynne Sladky / AP Photo
The 2022 U.S. midterm election results cement a trend that impacts U.S.-Latin American policy—hardline positions are largely bipartisan in Florida. Those positions congeal Cold War-era views and complicate policy change. They are shared by enough Democrats that President Joe Biden, whose attitude toward Latin America is generally centrist (and in the past was even sometimes hawkish), will certainly feel tempted not to alienate his own party with strong views on Latin America.
For years, conventional wisdom held that demographic changes in Florida would likely shift U.S. policy toward Cuba away from the status quo. Younger Floridians, even Cuban Americans, held more pragmatic views and were open to changing long-standing policies—most notably the embargo. However, those views do not seem to hold. Younger Cuban arrivals tend to have more liberal views on social needs, but those change over time as they are integrated into Republican-leaning communities. This view peaked in 2014, when President Barack Obama announced the thawing of diplomatic relations with Cuba. Two years later, Donald Trump was elected president and won Florida again in 2020 despite losing the election.
Further, Cuban policy is not the only game in town. Since that 2014 peak, governments in both Nicaragua and Venezuela have slid further down the hole toward authoritarianism. Additionally, Colombia elected not only a leftist leader in their last election, but a former guerilla. At this point, all of these countries get attention in Florida politics. During the 2022 mid-term elections, even Democratic candidates sound like Richard Nixon at his anti-Communist best. These bipartisan trends will have direct impacts on U.S. foreign policy—particularly toward Cuba, Venezuela, and Colombia.
Holding Fast to the Cuba Embargo
Florida International University’s poll of Cuban America in 2008 found that only 45 percent favored continuing the embargo, while 55 percent opposed its continuation. However, the same poll in 2022 revealed a different picture—57 percent of Cuban-Americans now support the continuation of the embargo, a number which rises to 63 percent if you remove “don’t know” as an option from the poll.
Almost any shift in U.S. sanctions on Cuba immediately generates bipartisan criticism and leads Democratic candidates to complain that the Biden administration is tone deaf when it comes to Florida politics. Facing the typical calls of being socialist, Democrat Annette Taddeo, who lost handily to incumbent María Elvira Salazar for a House seat, felt compelled to praise the Helms-Burton Act. Although Biden eased some sanctions on Cuba, he has gone no further. Furthermore, unlike Obama, he does not criticize the embargo and has been cautious about pushing policy change toward the island.
Slow Change on Venezuela Policy
As with Cuba, there is broad bipartisan agreement in Florida that sanctions against the Venezuelan government are appropriate. When the administration floated the idea of easing sanctions on Venezuelan oil imports, there was a bipartisan wave of condemnation. Democrat House Member Darren Soto, for example, opposed any change in U.S. policy that was not endorsed by Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó. In order for the Biden administration to shift U.S. policy toward Venezuela, it would have to accept opposition from both Democrats and Republicans.
Although there is also widespread support in Florida for Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans, there is no unanimity about how to address immigration more broadly. In fact, 50 percent of Latinos in Florida favored Governor Ron DeSantis’ stunt of flying Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. Although the Biden administration derided this stunt, it also announced a measure that made it more difficult for Venezuelans to enter the United States, using a policy (known as Title 42) to expel them to Mexico. For Biden, Venezuela is a decidedly domestic issue which leads to a greater emphasis on border security.
Disagreement on Colombia
With Colombia, the Biden administration more clearly differentiates itself from Florida politics. Taddeo (a Colombian American) denounced the administration’s decision to remove the terrorist designation from the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas (FARC) which laid down its arms in 2017. Democratic Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levina Cava was also vocally opposed to this decision, saying the U.S. should “should double down to reject the extremist communist agenda.” However, this very agenda has been rejected by the FARC itself for years. While Florida Democratic figures criticized the Biden administration’s decisions on Colombia, that was not enough for Republican Congresswoman María Elvira Salazar, who referred to Colombian President Gustavo Petro as a “thief, socialist, Marxist, terrorist.” Taddeo herself said she was “very worried” about Petro becoming president.
Here, at least, President Biden made clear that he looked forward to working with President Petro on the 2016 Peace Accord and other issues. Secretary of State Tony Blinken also recently met with Petro in Bogotá. At the same time, Petro has only been in office four months, so the relationship remains untested.
Governor DeSantis easily won re-election, and for the first time in 20 years, a Republican gubernatorial candidate won Miami-Dade County. In the 2024 presidential election, we should expect little disagreement in Florida on hardline positions and an uphill battle for any Democratic presidential candidate, particularly if they are vocal on shifting U.S.-Latin American foreign policy. President Biden won the 2020 presidential election while losing Florida, so the conservative bent within his own party in Florida does not have to sway him. Nonetheless, Biden tends to lean in that direction. Moving forward, a key question is whether Biden is willing to risk alienating elements of his own party to make changes in his foreign policy toward Latin America. That calculation is further complicated by the fact that Latino voters nationally are backing Republicans in greater numbers.
Dr. Greg Weeks is a professor of Political Science and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including The Military and Politics in Postauthoritarian Chile (2003), Irresistible Forces: Latin American Migration to the United States and its Effects on the South (2010), The Bachelet Government: Conflict and Consensus in Post-Pinochet Chile (2010), Understanding Latin American Politics (2014) and U.S. and Latin American Relations, 2nd Edition (2015). Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregWeeksCLT.