This article originally appeared at AlterNet.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama announced that Cuba would be freeing several American captives while also overhauling relations between the two countries, moving to a full normalization of relations that would include a gradual lifting of the travel and trade bans.
Obama's move is in sync with public opinion. Gallup has long polled Americans about their thoughts on Cuba policy, and for decades people have favored re-establishing diplomatic relations with the island nation.
So what has kept American politicians from changing Cuba policy? That's the question that should be asked in light of searing statements coming mostly from right-wing Republicans, but also from within the Democratic Party itself.
Here was the reaction of U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida: "This notion that somehow being able to travel more to Cuba, to sell more consumer products, the idea that’s going to lead to some democratic opening is absurd. But it’s par for the course with this administration constantly giving away unilateral concessions...in exchange for nothing."
And here's Florida Republican U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart: "President Obama’s decision to allow the Castro regime to blackmail the United States and abandon our pro-democracy principles is an outrage. These changes to policy will further embolden the Cuban dictatorship to continue brutalizing and oppressing its own people as well as other anti-American dictatorship and terrorist organizations."
Within the Democratic Party, the loudest critic of the move was Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who said: “President Obama's actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government.”
Despite being in different parties and hailing from different parts of the country, all of these lawmakers have one thing in common: their courtship by the powerful Cuba lobby.
While most Cuban Americans actually favor lifting the embargo and re-establishing relations, the organized Cuba lobby in Washington represents the views of a sliver of Cuban expatriates, many of them older, wealthy and tied to the pre-Castro Cuban government. This lobby is organized around an organization called the U.S. Cuba-Democracy PAC, which spent a million dollars on elections in 2008, although its spending declined to around $400,000 by the most recent election cycle. (Here's Rubio speaking at the PAC recently, and here's Menendez.)
Meanwhile, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, is reportedly preparing to make a speech blasting the move. (Here he is at a U.S. Cuba-Democracy PAC event last year.) Meanwhile, Diaz-Balart is extremely close to the Cuba lobby, much of it based in Florida, and has been described as a “one-trick pony”—promoting hardline Cuba policy being the trick—by a former Democratic opponent.
These men and other congressional allies of the Cuba lobby are now gearing up to try to obstruct Obama's normalizing of relations. (Rubio is already threatening to block Obama's ambassador to the country.) U.S. Cuba policy is not unlike our policy toward Israel, or toward Big Agriculture. It is based on special interests that have a foothold in Congress, not public opinion. For example, if Menendez really was committed to blocking trade to nations that abuse human rights, he would not be such a proponent of trade with autocratic China, even traveling to the country to praise businesses that operate there.
In the coming days, Obama will have to leverage the vast majority of public opinion against these special interests to prevent Congress from hamstringing this historic shift in U.S.-Cuba relations.