For Republicans wooing conservative primary voters, opposing the Obama administration’s efforts to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations is an easy political applause line.
There’s just one problem: It’s one more issue that increasingly pits the GOP against the powerful business community, a critical financial base for the party.
The GOP has aggressively criticized President Barack Obama as he has embarked on a mission to rewrite the country’s Cuba policy, taking steps – including an announcement Tuesday to remove Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism – toward lifting an embargo that has kept the Caribbean nation off limits to Americans for decades.
But even as prominent Republicans – including Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio – attack the President’s diplomatic measures, some of the country’s most influential business groups and leaders have loudly applauded Obama. Corporate America views the re-establishment of economic relations with Cuba as a potentially lucrative trade opportunity and a possible boon for industries like tourism, agriculture and telecommunications.
The Chamber of Commerce said the recent developments would allow “free enterprise to flourish.” Sugar tycoon Alfonso Fanjul, who was exiled from Cuba decades ago, shocked the anti-Castro movement last year when he said he would be open to investing in Cuba. Even within Florida, a state with a prominent, conservative-leaning Cuban American community, local business groups have hailed Obama’s recent moves.
Bob Rohrlack, CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, who will lead the group’s third delegation to Cuba in May, said he endorses changes to the current U.S.-Cuba relationship and lamented the “doggedness” of some individuals on this issue.
Many international businesses already in Cuba
“We are the only country that has a restriction like we do on Cuba,” Rohrlack said. “When we were there, even though we knew it, it was shocking to see how much of the rest of the world was there.”
Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist reversed his support for the embargo in 2012 and ran for governor last year as a proponent of opening trade.
In an interview with CNN, Crist predicted the Republican Party would not be able to defend the status quo for much longer, in no small part due to the economic ramifications.
“Being able to open up relations with the Cuban people and to have more trade not only benefits all of America, but in particular, the state of Florida, being only 90 miles away,” said Crist, who left the Republican Party after losing the 2010 Senate race to Rubio. “There are those who are going to be hard-liners and stay steadfast to their position in the past, but I think by and large, many Republicans already in fact think it’s the right thing to do.”
Within the field of Republican presidential candidates, there is near-unanimous disapproval of the Cuba thaw. Rubio, the Florida senator and son of Cuban parents who officially entered the GOP presidential field on Monday, is among the most vocal opponents of normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations.
“Cuba is a brutal, tyrannical dictatorship 90 miles from the shore of our country,” Rubio said in an interview with NPR this week, adding that the United States should “continue with the policy of not recognizing that regime and not allowing them access to economic growth that would allow them to perpetuate themselves in power.”
This Republican orthodoxy is pitting the party against the broader business community.
And the relationship between the United States and Cuba is hardly the first issue to highlight the divide between factions of the Republican Party and corporate America.
GOP, businesses clash on religious freedom laws
Most recently, Republican officials were in tension with companies across the country over the so-called religious freedom laws in Indiana and Arkansas, which gay rights advocates feared would allow companies to discriminate against LGBT customers. Conservative Republican lawmakers in Congress have also butted heads with business on issues like raising the debt ceiling, reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank and extending a federal terrorism risk insurance law.
Though there are significant obstacles, including Cuba’s poor infrastructure, to U.S. businesses reaping significant financial benefits right away, companies have their eyes set on the potential long-term benefits.
Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, said rebuilding economic ties with Cuba would boost Florida’s tourism industry.
“People, when they come to a Florida vacation, they often like to take a little side trip or take a cruise or stop at several points within the state,” Haley said. “And this will be a whole new reason to come to Florida.”
Florida, with its high number of Cuban immigrants and outsize role in presidential politics, has been a stronghold of political opposition to easing relations with Havana. But Cuba experts and Florida political strategists say the dynamics within Florida are already shifting, particularly with younger generations of Cuban-Americans more willing to consider an end to the embargo. And recent polling shows the majority of Americans support Obama’s efforts to re-establish ties with Cuba.
Lawrence Diamond, a partner at Duane Morris and chairman of the firm’s Cuba Business Group, said the emotionally charged opposition to re-establishing U.S.-Cuba relations in Florida can sometimes overshadow the desire in other parts of the country to do business with Cuba.
“If you’re in Idaho and you want to send potatoes to Cuba, this might be a big deal for them up there and the agricultural products,” Diamond said.
Thomas Herzfeld, chairman and president of Thomas J. Herzfeld Advisors, an investment firm that works on investments in Cuba, predicts that it’s only a matter of years — if not months — until the United States will have resumed some level of trade with Cuba.
“Geography plays a large part in it; certainly agricultural states in the Midwest are all for it,” Herzfeld said. “I just think the toothpaste has come out of the tube.”