For decades, the U.S. embargo on Cuba has been as much about domestic as foreign policy. In the end, a generational shift in the politics of one key state opened the way for the Obama administration to change half a century of efforts to isolate the island.
Several past administrations debated changes in U.S. Cuba policy, but each time, the fear of angering powerful anti-Castro immigrants and losing a presidential election in Florida blocked the idea. The Clinton administration’s outreach toward Cuba has been blamed by some Democrats for costing Al Gore the votes he needed to win Florida, and the presidency, in the agonizingly close 2000 election.
But the political landscape has shifted.
Florida’s Cuban community has changed dramatically, with younger Cuban Americans open to changes in U.S. policy. And Cubans are now only one element among Florida’s increasingly diverse Latinos, many of whom care little about Cuban politics. Many political analysts are convinced that President Obama’s Cuba policy will not be decisive in the battle for the nation’s third-largest state in 2016. At worst, they think, it will be a neutral factor.
Although a move to restore diplomatic ties to Cuba might once have upended the upcoming presidential campaign, it’s looking like a safe bet to many Democratic strategists, and Obama has a free hand to follow his foreign policy preferences.
That’s not to say that Cuba policy won’t be an issue in the 2016 election. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the most likely Democratic nominee, made a point of writing in her book released this year that before leaving her job as secretary of State, she had recommended to Obama that he end the U.S. embargo of Cuba.
In a statement Wednesday night, Clinton supported the president’s move. “The best way to bring change to Cuba is to expose its people to the values, information and material comforts of the outside world,” Clinton said in a Twitter post.
“The goal of increased engagement in the days and years ahead should be to encourage real and lasting reforms for the Cuban people,” she said.
On the GOP side, by contrast, two major presidential hopefuls are from Florida, and several have strong ties to the state’s older Cuban American voters, who remain staunchly opposed to Cuban President Raul Castro and his brother and predecessor, Fidel Castro. Cuban Americans make up about 6% of Florida’s electorate.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush, who took a step Tuesday toward seeking the Republican nomination, quickly denounced Obama’s move, as did other leading Republicans, including Florida’s GOP senator, Marco Rubio, who is also considering a presidential run.
Rubio, in a statement at the Capitol, called Obama’s opening to Havana “disgraceful.” Bush was slightly more tempered, saying in a Facebook post that Obama’s decision was a “policy misstep” that “undermines the quest for a free and democratic Cuba” and rewards “the heinous Castro brothers who have oppressed the Cuban people for decades.”
Republicans across the board said the move was further evidence that Obama was a weak negotiator willing to give up too much for little gain, an argument that they hope to carry into the presidential campaign if the Democratic nominee is Clinton.
With those positions staked out, Cuba policy will join immigration, global warming, healthcare and taxes on the long list of issues on which the likely Democratic and Republican nominees will be poles apart. By contrast, the issue of Cuba has sway in only a single state and, in that one, polls suggest it has lost its ability to decide elections.
One clear indicator was the reaction Wednesday from Florida’s other senator, Bill Nelson, a moderate Democrat who is known for political caution and has distanced himself from Obama on some issues.
“I'm as anti-Castro as anyone, but I think this is a good move,” Nelson said. Improving relations between Washington and Havana “will lead to an economic renaissance between Florida and Cuba,” he predicted.
Repeated polls by different organizations underscore how much the politics of Cuba have changed. Florida International University, for example, has polled Miami-area Cuban Americans since 1991. In its most recent survey, this spring, a slight majority of Miami-area Cubans supported lifting the embargo and a large majority, 68%, favored reopening diplomatic relations.
Cuban Americans ages 65 and older, many of whom left Cuba in the years immediately after Fidel Castro’s revolution, still supported the embargo, the poll found; those younger than 65 did not.
The 48% who supported the embargo this year marked a huge shift from 1991, when 87% of Miami-area Cubans backed the policy, or 2000, when 62% did so.
In June 2000, the Clinton administration sent Elian Gonzalez, a 7-year-old Cuban boy, back to his father on the island, taking him away from relatives in Miami and setting off protests in Miami. The anger over that case may have cost Gore crucial votes in the state.
But in 2008 and 2012, Obama carried Florida despite his advocacy of loosening restrictions on Cuba. This year, a majority of the state’s voters, even in a conservative, nonpresidential electorate, favored ending the embargo, said Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who served as a senior advisor to Obama’s campaigns.
“Outside of the embargo-era Cubans, other issues are really driving the vote,” he said.
Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida who is one of the leading experts on the politics of her state, saw the generational divide firsthand Wednesday. She was in Miami interviewing a Bay of Pigs veteran at Cafe Versailles, a hub of the Cuban American community in Little Havana, as Obama’s policy was being announced. From her seat, she could see a young man holding a sign that read, “Congratulations, Cuba.” Surrounding him, older Cuban Americans screamed in anger.
Not many years ago, people in south Florida’s Cuban American communities could be fired, marginalized socially or even beaten for saying they wanted better relations between the two countries, said Carlos Saladrigas, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, which advocates closer ties with the island.
Saladrigas, a banker, said much has changed. In Miami, he said, people now “advocate not only for greater openness and change in Cuba, but to be flexible and open in our own community.”