Foreign Policy for Sale? Interest Group Influence on President Clinton's Cuba Policy, August 1994

Article excerpt

"Anything the Foundation wants, it gets."(1)

Aide to Representative Robert Torricelli

At 1:30 P.M. on a Friday afternoon (August 19, 1994), President Clinton held a White House Press Conference and reversed the U.S. policy of accepting Cuban immigrants into the United States. Cubans had been fashioning rafts and departing for Florida since the first days of August 1994, and over seven thousand refugees had been rescued in the Florida straights in the last week alone. Furthermore, the trend did not appear to be slowing (the final number climbed to over 40,000)--some began to refer to it as a "slow motion Mariel," remembering the 1980 exodus that brought over 120,000 Cubans to the United States. The reversal of the twenty-eight-year-old Cuban Adjustment Act, which had enjoyed strong bipartisan support over its life span, was a major shift in American foreign and immigration policy.(2) The question is, why the change?

The New Republic contended that the president was the victim of interest group politics--in particular, the Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF) and its leader, Jorge Mas Canosa. The article contended that "Mas (Canosa) had pulled off the coup of his career--dictating America's new Cuba policy." The New Republic concluded, "With the exception of a naval blockade, which the president said he would reserve as a future option, Bill Clinton granted Mas's wish list in its entirety."(3) Mas's list included detaining all Cuban immigrants attempting to reach Florida, eliminating charter flights and cash remittances to Cuba, and increasing the budget of Radio and TV Marti.(4)

This article speculated that the president's motivations for towing the Mas Canosa line revolved around electoral politics and money. As Bardach notes, "[F]or Bill Clinton, the faustian deal was struck in the Spring of 1992 when he realized he was going to lose Florida, the third most populous state, to George Bush."(5) As a result, Clinton met with Cuban-American leaders, and in an April 23, 1994 speech at Victor's Cafe in Miami, he endorsed the Torricelli bill,(6) which was then under consideration in Congress.(7) Calling for tougher measures on Cuba with the purpose of accelerating the downfall of Fidel Castro, President Bush had delayed endorsing the bill. As a result, Mas Canosa, a very prominent conservative-Republican, gave Clinton a surprising endorsement.(8)

Candidate Clinton also received significant financial campaign contributions. According to the New Republic, "When Clinton left Victor's Cafe he had nearly $300,000 worth of Mas-controlled Cuban exile money in his campaign coffers." Indeed, half of the $1 million that the Clinton campaign received from contributors in Florida during the 1992 election came from Cuban exiles.(9)

Could this be? Could the president of the United States allow an interest group to dictate the foreign policy? This would indeed be a blow to the school of political science, which sees the president as able to stand in defiance of narrow interests as he represents the broader interest of the entire nation.(10) However, the presidency has grown significantly in the twentieth century. As Schlozman and Tierney note, "As the presidency increasingly has become the focal point of national policy-making, organized interests have recognized the significance of the White House as a target." They also point to the increased fragmentation and decentralization of the presidency as the responsibilities of that office have grown.(11) There is also some contention that President Clinton's situation is more susceptible to interest group influence because of his open and somewhat chaotic management style.(12)

This article examines two central questions: (1) Does an interest group politics model adequately explain how U.S. policy toward Cuba changed in August 1994? and (2) If not, what other competing models offer a more satisfying explanation? This article also moves beyond examining if and how interest groups affect presidential policy by also studying how the president, in turn, influences these groups. …