GOP Should Pay Attention to Gary Johnson's Stance on Cuba

A common sense Cuba policy could help Republicans with Latino voters.

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Poor Gary Johnson. He can't catch a break, even when he has something valuable to say.

If you haven't heard of Johnson, it's not really your fault. He's running for the GOP presidential nomination; in fact, he was among the first to announce his interest. But the former New Mexico Governor has been written off by the media and the political establishment as not having a slip of a chance at winning, so very few pay attention to him. That, of course, makes it even harder for Johnson to get his message out.

So Johnson's very sensible remarks on Cuba during last week's Republican primary debate barely got noticed. That's unfortunate, since even if Johnson goes nowhere, his perspective on Cuba is not only defensible policy, but good politics, long-term, for the GOP.

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Asked at the debate how he feels about charter flights being resumed between Ft. Lauderdale and Havana, Johnson answered as such:

With regard to flights to Cuba? You know, I'm—I'm in favor, I think, of the whole notion that trade promotes friendship, as opposed to not. So I would be inclined to looking at establishing or supporting those kinds of flights.

(Actually, Johnson initially answered the question by talking about the debt. But he can be forgiven for that, since so rarely is he given a chance to talk about topics everyone else in the field is permitted to address.)

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Such comments about Cuba—and said in Florida, no less—would have destroyed a candidate in an earlier campaign. The conventional wisdom was that Latinos—mainly Cuban-Americans—were critical to winning the Sunshine State, that all Cuban-Americans hated the idea of having any relationship at all with Cuba, and that anything short of calling for the damnation of people who sent money or toiletries to family and friends in Cuba would mean losing the state.

That's not true anymore, and if the GOP wants to make inroads into the so-called Latino vote, the party should listen to Johnson.

Hispanics are growing, as a proportion of the population. They have voted heavily Democratic nationwide, in elections, but they are not by any stretch a lock for the Democratic Party. Florida has many Hispanics, but the fastest-growing segment of the Latino population in Florida is Puerto Rican. Puerto Ricans are not a monolithic vote, either; those from the Island tend to be more conservative than those who moved from New York. And the Cuban-American population is also changing; younger Cubans are less dogmatic about Castro than older Cubans are.

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It's an easy line, to call for harsh sanctions against Cuba, since most Americans don't care all that much and those who do tend to be wound up about Castro. But refusing to engage hasn't moved the island nation closer to democracy, and it unfairly punishes those who just want to go back and see their families once in awhile. It's not like Johnson is asking the White House to hold a state dinner for Fidel and his brother.

Further, it defies logic to award most favored nation trading status to China while imposing sanctions against Cuba. If the idea is that trade and engagement promote change, then make it across the board. Coddling China while punishing Cuba doesn't make the United States look tough. Rather, the nation looks a little lame, picking the smaller and economically weaker country to sanction.

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Republicans already have problems with Latino voters, in large part because of their stance on immigration reform. Not all Latinos want open borders—in fact, they don't, especially if they themselves jumped through legal hoops to get here legally. But the talk about border fences and punishment of the innocent of children people who immigrated here illegally is damaging the GOP with Hispanics. Showing some basic common sense about Cuba policy could help a bit.

Republicans may well not pick Johnson as their presidential nominee. But they should listen to him.