WASHINGTON — For decades, a hardline anti-Castro contingent has dominated South Florida politics, as a generation of Cuban-Americans made their influence felt from city commission elections to presidential politics.
So when President Obama revealed this week that he would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, some of the criticism against the policy sounded familiar. Some Republican presidential prospects berated Obama as naive and accused him of capitulating to a dictatorship.
But beyond the instant reaction, a series of political, demographic, and economic trends could upend a political playbook that has been in use for a half century. Simply put, anti-Castro ideologues are dying off, replaced by a generation more open to normalized relations with Cuba.
Recent polls not only show that a majority of Americans favor normalizing relations but also that a majority of Cuban-Americans in South Florida agree. Some business groups, including the US Chamber of Commerce, have expressed interest in investing there. Looser travel restrictions announced by Obama may also soften opinions toward the decades-long US embargo with Cuba, as Cuban Americans visit friends there and send larger remittances to family members.
“They’re not making any more of the old-guard, Cold War exile types, and they are making lots more of the new migrants,” said Guillermo J. Grenier, a sociologist at Florida International University and the lead investigator for the FIU Cuba Poll, which has tracked Cuban-American opinions since 1991.
This year’s Cuba Poll showed that 52 percent of Cuban-Americans in South Florida support lifting the embargo, while 68 percent favor renewing diplomatic relations. Those figures were higher among younger Cuban Americans and those who arrived since 1995. In 1991, 87 percent of all respondents favored tightening the embargo.
Newer arrivals and younger immigrants from Cuba are less likely to be influenced by South Florida’s high-octane talk radio shows and the vocal activist organizations that served as networking centers for their predecessors, Grenier said. They are more influenced by American popular culture, he said.
Similarly, the Republican Party — which has most strongly rejected normalized ties with Cuba — is showing cracks in its opposition.
Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican and potential presidential candidate whose parents were born in Cuba, said he was committed to undoing Obama’s actions. But Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a Republican and also a possible presidential contender, said in a radio interview Thursday that the trade embargo “hasn’t worked” and that restoring relations is “probably a good idea.”
Though Obama said he would unilaterally open a US Embassy in Havana and relax some travel restrictions, the measures he revealed Wednesday would not end the economic embargo in place since 1961 or the ban on American tourism. Those changes require congressional action.
A fight among Cuban-American activists could erupt as Congress considers confirming an ambassador, funding an embassy, or ending the embargo. That could pressure those who have staked their career on keeping the embargo in place, from popular talk radio personalities, to politicians, to scholars.
The United States Agency for International Development disburses $20 million a year to contractors, including some who have been shown in recent Associated Press investigations to spend money on trying to infiltrate the island’s hip-hop community and setting up social media services to undermine the regime.
More than 100 people work for Radio and TV Marti, an official US broadcast with a $26 million budget that reaches a small audience on the island.
“There’s a lot of money involved,” said Jorge Dominguez, a Harvard University government professor who has written or edited several books on Cuba.
Those who favor a harder line resent the implication that politics or money are in play. Jose Azel, a senior scholar with the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami, said closer ties should wait until the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul, die and that the United States should not be accommodating a brutal regime.
“People are moved by their ideals, by patriotism,” Azel said.
Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Cuban institute at the University of Miami, said the Cold War tension between the countries survives “because Cuba lives in the Cold War.”
Polling suggests politics may lag behind any changes in public opinion. Fewer than a third of those who arrived since 1995 are citizens, meaning the votes are still with the old guard. Analysts say it could take five to 10 years for the newer voices to control the political debate.
Several prominent Florida politicians, including former governor Jeb Bush, a Republican who is exploring a run for president, criticized Obama’s deal to normalize relations. In a speech several weeks ago, he said the embargo should be strengthened, to increase pressure on Raul Castro’s regime to hold free elections, open its economy, and release political prisoners. New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat and Cuban American, also denounced the deal.
US Representative Joe Garcia, a Miami Democrat who favors closer ties with Cuba, said the old guard also holds the emotional advantage in the debate. He said they “built a shrine around a policy that was not particularly effective.”
“That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t effective for politics,” Garcia added. Garcia lost his election in November after serving a single term.
Republicans are also coming under pressure from some of their most influential constituents to end the embargo, including the Chamber of Commerce, agri-business groups, and a variety of companies that want to trade with Havana. Several Republican lawmakers have taken trips to Cuba in recent years, including Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who was on the plane Wednesday with Alan Gross, the American who was freed by Cuba.
Many businesses are eager to open in Havana. Stephen Joyce, chief executive of Choice Hotels Inc., said that if Congress lifts the trade embargo, hotel chains and cruise ships will begin investing almost immediately, because the country is 90 miles from the United States and has miles of beaches and an intriguing history.
“We have been at a huge disadvantage because European competitors have been able to go there and we have not,” Joyce said in an interview. “I’ve been interested for 20 years, waiting for an opportunity.”