President Obama's announcement Wednesday that he will work to normalize relations with Cuba, ending more than 60 years of isolation, unleashed a torrent of scorn from some lawmakers who viewed the move as appeasing a rogue regime.
But the announcement also revealed a thawing of decades-old views toward Cuba from a growing chorus of Americans and mostly Democratic lawmakers who view the current policies as a relic of the Cold War and who support the easing of sanctions.
Following more than a year and a half of secret negotiations with the Cuban government of President Raul Castro, the White House announced it will move to re-open its embassy in Havana and ease restrictions on travel and commerce in the coming weeks and months.
Speaking from the White House, he declared that a half-century of isolation of the Communist country “has not worked.”
“It’s time for a new approach,” he said.
The change was triggered by Cuba's release of Alan Gross, a US Agency for International Development contractor imprisoned for five years for working to bring Internet access to dissidents. Cuba also released a US spy, who was not named.
In exchange, the United States agreed to release three Cubans who were imprisoned for espionage in 2001.
The news was lambasted by some in Congress, especially Cuban-American lawmakers.
Florida Senator and possible Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio called the administration's move a “dangerous and desperate attempt by the president to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people’s expense," while New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez called it an "asymmetrical trade [that] will invite further belligerence toward Cuba’s opposition movement and the hardening of the government’s dictatorial hold on its people."
Their reaction is not surprising, given that US policy toward Cuba plays a significant role in national politics, because Cuban-Americans are a strong voting block in an important swing state.
What may be surprising is the number of Americans and Democratic lawmakers who support a thaw in US-Cuba relations.
“For too long our relationship has been soured by mistrust and clouded by memories of the Cold War,” Sen. Diane Feinstein (D) of California said in a statement. “Reports that our countries will move to normalize relations are very welcome. Reconciling our differences, opening embassies, increasing trade and building people-to-people relationships are all long overdue."
Sen Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont also supported the move, saying "This is a major step forward in ending the 55-year Cold War with Cuba."
The other Senator from Vermont, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D), who visited Gross twice in Cuba, and met him on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base when he landed Wednesday morning, also welcomed the news.
"By taking further steps to change a policy that is a relic of the Cold War, that has achieved none of its goals, and that has isolated the United States, the president has wisely charted a new course that serves our national interests in this hemisphere and the world,” he said. “Our policies, frozen in time, have disserved the nation and have failed utterly and abysmally in achieving their original goals."
It turns out increasing numbers Americans – even Cuban-Americans – share that view.
As NPR reported, while the assumption is that Cuban-Americans support punitive policies against Havana, over the years that attitude has changed significantly.
Florida International University in Miami has been polling Cuban-Americans on their views toward the embargo since 1991. That data shows a consistent decline in support for US sanctions on Cuba.
In 1991, 87 percent of Cuban-Americans supported the embargo. Today, some 68 percent of respondents favor restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Why the dramatic shift?
In a word, demographics. Older Cuban emigres in the US tend to oppose opening relations with Cuba after 50-plus years of resentment, while younger Cuban-Americans are less hardened in their views toward the island nation.
"We are witnessing a clear demographic shift with younger and more recently arrived Cubans favoring a change in policy toward the island," Prof. Guillermo J. Grenier, one of the co-principal investigators of the Florida International University Cuba Poll, said in a statement.
That's confirmed by the poll, which shows that among younger respondents, 90 percent favor restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba.
"The older generation still retain this idea that they're going to go back to a non-Castro Cuba. That they're going to reclaim Cuba," CNN's Fareed Zakaria said. "The younger generation don't harbor those fantasies.
"The issues were so much caught up with the Cold War. All that is gone. Finally, in a sense, we're catching up with what the reality is," he said, adding, "There is an alternate strategy that more contact, more commerce will have the effect of softening, opening up the regime."