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Coming to Florida: Cuba Policy Pander-Fest

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Cuba-bashing by both political parties is a four-season sport in American politics, but it's always more extreme around election time.

With Florida's primary and two debates immediately before us, it's worth remembering just how big a role campaigns play in sustaining this failed, Cold War-era policy and toughening the policy between elections.

It's a long standing tradition for candidates to go out on the trail with red-meat rhetoric to try and outdo their opponents and prove their anti-Castro bona fides to the politically significant, hardline exile community.

During the 2007-2008 campaign, candidates at a debate on Univision were asked about the Castro regime having survived nine presidents. "What would you do differently," the moderator said, "that has not been done so far, to bring democracy to Cuba?"

Sen. Fred Thompson replied with tough talk, "I'm going to make sure that he didn't survive 10 U.S. presidents."

Also running that year, Gov. Mitt Romney endorsed the embargo, promised Cuban Americans he'd stand "side by side with the members of this community in fighting the menace of the Cuban Monsters," and quoted Fidel Castro, using the phrase "Patria o muerte, venceremos [Fatherland or death, we will prevail]," in the mistaken belief that the slogan would rouse hardliners in the exile community to his side. In this campaign, it is happening again.

Gov. Romney was out last fall with a white paper calling Cuba a rogue nation, leading a virulently anti-American movement across Latin America, and castigating the Obama administration for relaxing sanctions on Cuba (it has eased travel restrictions but not the embargo) without "demanding reforms."

Gov. Romney has won endorsements from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart -- Floridians, Cuban Americans, and the staunchest defenders of the U.S. embargo -- who also defend his against attacks for his anti-Dream Act stance before Latino audiences.

Until recently, Romney mentioned little about Cuba's off-shore drilling and U.S.-Cuba relations, campaigning instead in Florida against President Obama, promoting his economic plans, and letting interest groups carry the fight against his opponents' records on Cuba. That is likely to change as the struggle for Florida votes intensifies.

By contrast, Speaker Gingrich has been on the offensive. He casts himself as the harshest critic of the Castro regime, vows to reestablish Bush-era travel restrictions on Cuban Americans, has hired a top campaign adviser to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and offers a less restrictive immigration policy.

He is also running this Spanish-language radio spot which ridicules Romney's Castro sloganeering from 2007 and talks up his work in Congress with Romney's supporters Rep. Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Diaz-Balart on the Helms-Burton legislation in 1996.

With nationally-televised network debates taking place in Tampa and Jacksonville this week just days before Florida's Jan. 31 primary, one can only expect the anti-Cuba pander-fest to reach a fevered pitch.

Is this politics as usual or does it actually matter? While many Americans correctly view campaign pandering with cynicism, candidates tend to mean -- and do as officeholders -- what they actually say during campaigns. That's especially true of presidents who can wheel freely on foreign policy.

As one scholar wrote recently: "I suspect that many Americans would be quite skeptical of the idea that elected officials, presidents included, try to keep the promises they made on the campaign trail."

Political scientists, however, have been studying this question for some time, and what they've found... is that presidents invariably attempt to carry out their promises... presidents' agendas are clearly telegraphed in their campaigns.

When you look at the biggest changes to toughen the policy in the last 20 years -- the Cuba Democracy Act passed in 1992, the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, or the George W. Bush travel restrictions which clamped down on Cuban American travel to the island in 2004 -- all were made during presidential election years.

Good politics, perhaps. But every time Washington tightened the screws on the U.S. embargo, it sent us further and further away from having an effective policy toward Cuba.

There are big issues here. Whether it is the sad news that a dissident in prison passed away this week after a 50-day hunger strike; the predicament of Alan Gross, the U.S. contractor starting his third year in a Cuban jail for carrying out activities under a "regime change" program aimed at overturning Cuba's system; the fact that Cuba is about to start drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico and U.S. policy effectively prevents crisis coordination against spills and bars our workers and firms from participating, hardline policies against Cuba are an enduring failure.

So, it matters what the candidates say about these issues, because any one of them could be elected president and have the chance to turn their hardline rhetoric into U.S. foreign policy come 2013.