Obama gains Republican allies and younger Cuban-Americans on Cuba

The portrait of Cuban-Americans is changing as a younger generation comes along, more in tune with what Obama advocates, separating them from their parents and grandparents who came to the US as exiles.

Javier Galeano/REUTERS
Anti-Castro activists protest at the Jose Marti park in Miami, Florida Saturday. News that the US will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than a half century rippled through the 1.5-million-strong exile community, many of them lifelong opponents of communist rule.

The political divide over President Obama’s surprise move toward rapprochement with Cuba is both partisan and generational.

But not entirely.

At José Martí Park in Miami’s Little Havana Saturday, there was a rally to protest Obama’s announcement on Cuba. An estimated 250 people participated – fewer than likely would have taken part in the past.

“It's a betrayal of us Cubans,” Ebelio Ordoñez, who was born in Cuba 69 years ago but has lived in the United States for 46 years, told the Miami Herald.

“You can’t make deals with tyrants, one who has made no concessions to the Cuban people in more than 50 years,” Mr. Ordoñez said. “I would give my life for this country and for Cuba. But this is not good for the Cuban people.”

As if to bolster such opposition to the Cuban regime run by Fidel Castro and now his brother Raúl, the younger President Castro said Saturday that normalizing relations with the US would not mean that Cuba gives up its socialist principles.

"In the same way that we have never demanded that the United States change its political system, we will demand respect for ours," Raúl Castro told the National Assembly.

Despite improved relations, he said, Cuba faces a "long and difficult struggle" to end the US economic embargo. For one thing, he said, Cuban-American exiles will attempt to "sabotage the process.”

No doubt he had in mind many state and local elected officials in Florida (and large numbers of their constituents), plus US Senators Marco Rubio (R) of Florida and Ted Cruz (R) of Texas.

But they don’t speak for Raúl Moas, 26, president of Roots of Hope, a group that helps young professionals in Cuba. He was born in the United States after his parents left Cuba in the 1960s.

"I don't have the scars of exile," Mr. Moas told USA Today.

"I'm able to empathize with that. I'm able to slip on their shoes at times and, through their stories and pictures, live that for a moment,” he said. “But I'm also able to remove myself from that and see it from a different perspective."

That different perspective is shared by most younger Cuban-Americans, according to recent polls.

In Florida International University’s most recent annual Cuba poll (2014), 48 percent of Miami-Dade County’s Cuban-Americans support continuing the embargo – down from 87 percent when the poll began in 1991.

“A large majority favors diplomatic relations with Cuba (68 percent), with younger respondents strongly backing the policy shift (90 percent),” the poll reports. “A large majority of respondents (69 percent) favor the lifting of travel restrictions impeding all Americans from traveling to Cuba. Younger respondents overwhelmingly endorse this policy shift (89 percent), as do the most recent arrivals (80 percent).”

In other word, the younger generation of Cuban-Americans coming along behind their parents and grandparents is much more open to the kind of changes Obama announced.

“They’re not making any more of the old-guard, Cold War exile types, and they are making lots more of the new migrants,” Guillermo Grenier, a sociologist at Florida International University and the lead investigator for the FIU Cuba Poll, told the Boston Globe.

Most of Obama’s political opposition here is from Republicans. Sens. Rubio and Cruz are just the most vocal.

From his libertarian perspective, Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky backs Obama, and he’s gotten into a sharp rhetorical duel with Sen. Rubio on the subject.

A handful of other Republicans applaud Obama’s move on Cuba.

“I don’t often agree with President Obama, but he was right to begin the process of normalizing relations with Cuba,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona told Politico.

“The funny thing about freedom is that when people experience a little more of it, they don’t want to give it up and they want more than they have,” Sen. Flake said. “That has been the case with travel and will continue to be the case in Cuba.”

“For those who say this is a concession somehow to the Cuban regime … I think that that is a wrong way to look at it. That is simply wrong,” said Flake. “The policy that we’ve had in place for the past 50 years has done more in my view … to keep the Castro regimes in power than anything we could’ve done.”

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah said he finds the current ban on Americans traveling to Cuba “ridiculous,” according to Politico’s report.

“There are other provisions that I really need to study and look at, but the idea of allowing Americans their free choice to make their own decision about going to Cuba – I applaud that and support it,” Rep. Chaffetz told KSL radio.

Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, who wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan, takes the long view. She writes:

“If the new policy succeeds and leaves an old foe less active and avowed we will be better off, and it’s always possible, life being surprising, that we’ll be much better off. If the policy fails we’ll be no worse off than we were and can revert back to the old order, yanking out our embassy and re-erecting old barriers.

“Nothing will make Cuba democratic overnight. But American involvement and presence – American tourists and businessmen, American diplomats, American money, American ways and technology – will likely in time have a freeing effect. With increased contact a certain amount of good feeling will build. And that could make Cuba, within a generation or even less, a friend. And that would be good for the American national interest, because it’s better to have a friend 90 miles away than an active and avowed enemy.

“With a real opening, including lifted embargoes, all the pressure year by year would be toward more back-and-forth, greater prosperity, and more freedom squeaking in by Internet and television.

"In a rising Cuba all the pressure will be toward freedom. It will not be toward dictatorship.”

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