Refugees fleeing Cuba by boat. 1994.
At this point it is clear that Joe Biden will almost certainly be the next President of the United States. While I have many reservations about him and the Democratic Party in general, I prefer his victory to a second term for Trump overall. But it’s also clear that Biden’s victory was much closer than expected. One of the main reasons for this was his defeat in main swing state, Florida, which analysts believe was in large part due to his underperformance on Cuban-American voters, many of whom were startled by the perception that Democrats were “socialists” and sympathetic with Fidel Castro’s dictatorship from which these Cubans (or in many cases their parents or grandparents) fled.
Political predictions are always a coincidence. But I think it’s pretty safe to assume that Florida, with its 29 votes, will be a major swing state in presidential and congressional elections for some time to come. And Cuban Americans will continue to be an important constituency in this state. It is therefore in the interests of the Democrats to heal the break with the Cuban-American community.
And there is a way soon-to-be President Biden can start doing it while undoing a grave injustice – and without sacrificing the principles that are important to the Liberals. He can do this by undoing President Obama’s gruesome reversal of policy towards Cuban refugees in January 2017. I described the problem in a 2017 post that was written shortly after that decision and was one of the last Obama implemented before he left office:
For about fifty years the US has been welcoming refugees fleeing the brutal communist dictatorship in Cuba. In the 1990s the policy was changed to “Wetfoot, Dryfoot”, under which Cubans who managed to reach the United States were allowed to stay, but those unfortunate enough to be caught at sea were expelled. On Thursday, President Obama ended the wetfoot and dryfoot policies and made Cuban refugees and undocumented migrants from other countries “dependent on deportation”. They could continue to have official refugee or asylum status by showing that they were personally attacked by the government because of their political speech, religion or other characteristics. But in most cases this is extremely difficult. For most Cubans, as for other victims of communist governments, the greatest injustice they suffer is the day-to-day oppression of all subjects of the regime.
There is absolutely no justification for Obama’s new policies. It is unrepentant cruel to Cuban refugees without creating significant benefits. Despite some modest economic reforms, Cuba remains a repressive communist dictatorship, whose population has been massively oppressed and poor through over fifty years of totalitarianism. Indeed, the suppression of dissent has actually increased since President Obama began normalizing relations with Cuba in December 2014.
If anything, the United States would have done better to end the “wetfoot” part of politics and stop rejecting Cuban refugees who are unfortunate enough to be captured at sea. Where a refugee is accidentally found by US authorities is a morally arbitrary trait that in no way changes his or her status as a victim of brutal tyranny.
President Obama and the US administration are not responsible for the repression that Cuban refugees are fleeing from. But they are responsible for using violence to force refugees to return to a nation where further repression is likely to be their lot. Such an action makes the US government partially complicit in the injustice perpetrated by the Cuban regime.
Despite its rhetorical hostility to the Cuban regime and communism in general, the Trump administration has continued the new Obama policy, probably because of Trump’s own hostility to immigration of almost all kinds. If Biden were to reverse Obama policy in a very visible way, he could contrast Trump, start making amends for the Cubans, and also send a strong signal that the Democrats are not a group of socialists out to serve the interests of the Cuban communist dictatorship. And as mentioned above, doing so would benefit both the US economy and society, and help save thousands of people from poverty and oppression. It could send an even stronger signal – and do even more good – by breaking the wet-foot / dry-foot distinction and offering sanctuary to all Cuban migrants, regardless of whether US authorities find them on land or at sea.
The main rationale for the Obama policy is the idea that it is unfair to treat Cuban refugees more favorably than those fleeing other oppressive regimes. I address this partially legitimate concern in my 2017 article:
The main reason for changing the policy is that it is unfair to treat Cuban refugees differently from those fleeing other oppressive governments. As President Obama put it, we should treat them “just like migrants from other countries”. Ideally, we should welcome all who are fleeing oppression, regardless of whether their oppressors are left or right regimes or radical Islamists.
However, the right way to eradicate this inequality is not to treat Cuban refugees worse, but to treat other refugees better. And if the latter is not politically feasible, we should at least refrain from exacerbating evil by facilitating the oppression of the Cubans. It is better to protect Cuban refugees from the risk of deportation than none at all.
If a police force disproportionately abuses blacks, it would be unfair to “fix” the inequality by inflicting similar abuse on whites or Asians. Abusing other groups is inherently unfair and unlikely to help blacks. Similarly, the injustice inflicted on refugees from other oppressive regimes cannot and should not be corrected by imposing similar injustices on Cubans.
In a world where it is politically not feasible to take in all refugees, it is justifiable to start with those who are fleeing Cuba, because this regime in the immediate vicinity of the United States is the most oppressive. I will elaborate on the relevance of these types of considerations in Chapter 8 of my recently published book “Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration and Political Freedom”. And reopening the door to Cubans would not result in the exclusion of others who can get in under applicable law.
I would add that any perception of favoritism can be tempered by the fact that Biden also plans to take steps to facilitate immigration for a variety of other groups, including refugees fleeing various types of right-wing dictatorships. That’s one of the main reasons I voted for him!
There are other things Democrats could potentially do to improve their standing with Cuban Americans and others who have fled socialist despotisms, like Venezuelan immigrants. For example, they could take a tougher foreign policy line against these regimes and marginalize the “democratic socialist” wing of their own party. But these steps (which I also support) could be politically difficult and potentially cause conflict within the Democratic Party. Opening the door to Cuban refugees is unlikely to cause such political problems for Biden.
In advocating this idea, I am realizing that I am the umpteenth person to say that something they prefer anyway is politically beneficial. For what it’s worth, I am aware that I hold many unpopular views, including on immigration issues. It is very unlikely that a candidate or party that stands up for everything I support will win elections, at least for a long time. In this case, however, the useful and the just actually overlap.
UPDATE: I’ve made a few minor additions to this post.