When Foreign Policy Hits Home

Foreign Policy

By María Isabel Puerta Riera

Biden In a Crossfire

The Biden administration has been under fire since reports in early March suggested a change in the direction of the foreign policy toward Venezuela, including exploring the possibility of sanctions relief if the Nicolás Maduro regime agreed to certain conditions. The breakthrough came amid the global response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the rising gas prices fueling inflation in the United States. The decision was not only condemned by Republicans but even more so in South Florida, where the Venezuelan American community expressed frustration with the course this administration is taking vis-à-vis the Venezuelan regime.

In the past week, another outcome from the backchanneling between both governments rendered tangible results when the Venezuelan regime agreed to exchange six U.S. citizens and a Legal Permanent Resident held in prison in Venezuela for the two nephews of Nicolás Maduro’s spouse, sentenced for drug trafficking in 2016. Democrats and Republicans hailed the decision, and even conservative media considered the prisoner swap successful.

Still, the Venezuelan American community voiced its frustration again, this time with Venezuelan political leaders in the United States criticizing the step taken by the White House. The problem for President Biden and his national security team is they are restricted by the nature and scope of the maximum pressure policy endorsed by the previous administration. The unwinding of a deeply misguided policy is having significant consequences for this administration due to the high impact on the voting blocs affected by it, making it more difficult to redefine the approach.

The Cuban American Backdrop

The Cuban American electorate could be seen as a mentor for the coming-of-age Venezuelan American voter. The historical circumstances that these ex-pat communities share have contributed to fostering a connection that goes beyond culture and politics. This close relationship can be seen not only in the similarities they share as victims of a socialist regime overtaking their country but also in their influence on the foreign policy agenda of the United States regarding Cuba and Venezuela. The Cuban American electorate is the dominant constituency shaping the politics in South Florida. As the leading Latino immigrant community in the area, Cuban Americans are commanding a powerful narrative against left-leaning regimes adding Nicaraguans and Venezuelans, among others, to a formidable political powerhouse. We can find in the literature about immigrant communities and their political socialization some clues on the development of the political identity of the newest addition to this electorate.

The political background these communities bring, the imported ideology, is connected to the political reality they find in their resocialization process. The experience of political assimilation can lead to consistent engagement, especially if these communities assume their chosen country is committed to supporting efforts that benefit their birth country. This is when the foreign policy agenda matters in places like South Florida, where elections run as far as back home. One of the first thoughts after the migrant flights from Texas, chartered by Florida’s governor, was if the Republican Party would recover from it. Two weeks later, after the prisoner exchange was revealed, Democrats in Florida were pessimistic about their chances after the criticism of the prisoner exchange.

Where Does it Go from Here?

The Venezuelan American vote is not relevant due to its size. The connection to other migrant communities makes it a key constituency in a state where the margin of election results can be very slim, and therefore every voter counts. The United States has a complex electoral system by design, and the influence these immigrant communities have in the general and midterm elections are more consequential. The relevance of communities like the Cuban and Venezuelan American can be seen in the crafting of campaign messages and the policies regarding their birth countries.

The debate about sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela is highly critical to this voting bloc. Any suggestion of lifting or even easing some portions can destroy the electoral aspirations of anyone. Although the effectiveness of these measures has been discussed, there is a cautious approach by the Biden administration, which is no fan of the policy, asserting that any modification of it depends on a change of behavior of the Maduro regime.

This is just one of many case studies of the impact of foreign policy on domestic politics in the United States. A nation of immigrants is likely to have these demands. With a unique electoral system, the fluctuations in the electorate in South Florida can have a significant impact not only in the presidential election but in the midterms. These immigrant communities bring their own experiences and adjust them to the complexities of American politics. The engagement of Cuban and Venezuelan Americans is unique, given the proportion of foreign-born voters highly interested in the policies directed to their countries of birth. So while foreign policy rarely influences most voters, for migrant communities it frequently hits home.

María Isabel Puerta Riera is a Political Scientist teaching U. S. Government in Florida. Interested in U. S. and Latin American Politics. 

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