After enduring months of Republican assaults on her foreign-policy record, Hillary Clinton is using the Cuban-U.S. thaw to open her own attack.
On Friday, Clinton called for Congress to lift the longstanding embargo on Cuba in a speech at the university where Cuban-American and Castro hawk Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., teaches, and in the state where former governor Jeb Bush, a more measured opponent of Cuba normalization, forged his political career.
“Most Republican candidates still view Cuba – and Latin America more broadly – through an outdated Cold War lens. Instead of opportunities to be seized, they see only threats to be feared,” she said at Florida International University. “We cannot afford to let out-of-touch, out-of-date partisan ideas and candidates rip away all the progress we’ve made. We can’t go back to cowboy diplomacy and reckless war-mongering. We can’t go back to a go-it-alone foreign policy that views American boots on the ground as a first choice rather than as a last resort. We have paid too high a price.”
By challenging two rivals on their home turf, Clinton sought to reframe her tenure as President Obama’s secretary of state, and open a new stage in her presidential campaign. She had so far kept some distance from her national security experience, allowing a GOP field short on such experience to attempt to tie her to recent foreign policy crises and anxiety about the Islamic State.
In her speech, she counseled a diplomacy-first policy of engagement, realistic but also optimistic. As for her 17 Republican rivals, she lumped them in with the unpopular force-first unilateralism of former President George W. Bush.
Cuba is a safe, but smart, bet for Clinton — just as it was for President Obama to pursue renewed diplomatic relations and give himself a badly needed win for his foreign policy doctrine, which, if less muscular and interventionist than Clinton’s, still has much in common with it.
The politics of the issue have changed dramatically with the demographics of the U.S., particularly Florida. The roughly 2 million Cubans and Cuban-Americans living in the U.S., and 11 million Cubans on the island, would likely benefit from eased economic restrictions if Congress were to lift the embargo. There’s also been a seismic shift in the half-century since U.S.-Cuba relations were broken off. Younger generations are much more supportive of normalizing relations with Cuba, and Cuban-American conservative strongholds like Miami and Florida are increasingly diluted by Puerto Ricans and other groups who don’t necessarily share the same enmity.
Still, most of the Cuban-Americans and Florida representatives in Congress continue to oppose any easing of tensions with Raul Castro’s government. No sooner had Clinton’s campaign staff announced the speech, Republican candidates began to criticize her approach as appeasement.
“After Secretary Clinton’s failed ‘reset’ with Putin, now she wants to do a ‘reset’ with Castro,” Rubio said in a statement. “President Obama and Secretary Clinton must learn that appeasement only emboldens dictators and repressive governments, and weakens America’s global standing in the 21st century.”
Bush said earlier Friday, at the National Urban League conference where he shared a stage with Clinton, “[It’s] insulting to many residents of Miami for Hillary Clinton to come here to endorse a retreat in the struggle for democracy in Cuba.”
While the shift in public opinion is unlikely to provoke a Cuban “evolution” in 2016 candidates and senators such as Rubio and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, both of whose parents left Cuba, or Bush, who has deep ties to that community, their opposition is likely to put them on the wrong side of the numbers as the demography shifts.
As Clinton noted, there’s growing bipartisan support in Congress for lifting the embargo and the Obama administration’s moves to reopen dialogue with Castro. She called out House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “It’s time for [Republicans’] leaders to either get on board or get out of the way,” she said.
In portraying Republican thinking — even from a younger generation — as outdated and diplomacy-averse, Clinton turned the tables on a string of attacks from GOP candidates who have sought to package her family name, time in Washington and age as a been-there-done-that, “leader from yesterday,” to use one of Rubio’s favorite lines.
Though GOP leaders have said that their most recent presidential nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has been vindicated on foreign policy, the strategy Clinton has adopted was brutally effective when Obama wielded it against him in 2012. After Romney declared Russia to be America’s top foe (an assessment since echoed by the top U.S. military officials), Obama shot back, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
Clinton acknowledged her own evolution on Cuba, and said she is not naive. When President Bill Clinton tried to engage Fidel Castro, the effort fell apart after the Cuban air force shot down two unarmed U.S. civilian planes. This influenced her work as a senator tightening restrictions on Cuba, she said. “Anyone who thinks we can trust this regime hasn’t learned the lessons of history,” she said. But she also noted it was she who advised Obama as his secretary of state to push for lifting the embargo and restarting talks, finding isolation doesn’t work.
Cuba is also a clearer-cut example for Clinton to cite from her time at the State Department than others where her record has been clouded by recent events, such as Libya or Russia. And beyond hot-button domestic issues in the U.S. such as immigration and border security, the broader region of Latin America is largely uncontested in American presidential politics.
While making an argument for American leadership in the hemisphere, Clinton can also make a play for Latino voters with ties there and for whom immigration and border security are not the top issues. This approach to the region is the antithesis of the Republicans’ far and away front-runner (for now), Donald Trump. “Many Republicans seem to think of Latin America still as a land of crime and coups,” she said. (The one real exception is Jeb Bush, who has sounded a rare note of compassionate conservatism on immigration and has put his Mexican-American family at the center of his campaign.)
“Our unpopular policy towards Cuba held back our influence and leadership. Frankly, it was an albatross around our necks,” Clinton said.
“Too often, we look east, we look west, but we don’t look south. And no region in the world is more important to our long-term prosperity and security than Latin America,” she continued. “I’m running to build an America for tomorrow, not yesterday.”