Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush—the first Republican to declare an official interest in becoming his party’s next presidential nominee—was quick to pounce on President Barack Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba. “I don’t think we should be negotiating with a repressive regime to make changes in our relations with them until there are substantive changes on the island,” he told Miami Herald reporter Marc Caputo Wednesday morning. He posted a longer comment on his Facebook page later Wednesday afternoon, asserting that “the benefactors of President Obama’s ill-advised move will be the heinous Castro brothers who have oppressed the Cuban people for decades.”
It’s no surprise that Bush pounced to attack the shift in policy. A few weeks ago, Bush said that the current prohibitions on travel and trade are too loose and that the US government should clamp down harder on the Castro regime. “I would argue that instead of lifting the embargo we should consider strengthening it again to put pressure on the Cuban regime,” he told a crowd at an event in early December hosted by US Cuba Democracy PAC, a group that favors maintaining the embargo. Bush claimed that efforts to relax travel restrictions under Obama had aided the repressive government. “Would lifting the embargo change the fact that the government receives almost all of the money that comes from these well-intended people that travel to the island?” he asked.
Bush’s support for the embargo dates back to the 1980s, when he settled in Miami and formed close ties to the exile community there when embarking on his early business career. A 2004 article by William Finnegan in The New Yorker noted that “Jeb Bush is largely responsible for the fact that most Miami Cubans are Republicans.” As Finnegan wrote:
When Jeb became chairman of the Dade County Republican Party, in 1984, he simply looked at South Florida’s demographics, saw the opportunity, and went to work making the Republican Party the natural home for Cuban exiles. In 1979, registered Democrats still outnumbered Republicans among Cuban-Americans by forty-nine per cent to thirty-nine per cent. By 1988, only twenty-four per cent were Democrats, and sixty-eight per cent were Republicans.
Cuban exiles became an essential part of Bush’s base during his gubernatorial campaigns in the Sunshine State. In 2002, Jeb’s older brother, then-President George W Bush, went to Florida and threatened to veto any bills from Congress that relaxed the embargo, a bit of chest puffing seen at the time as an effort to boost Jeb’s reelection campaign that year.