- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2009

MIAMI | With the inauguration last week of Barack Obama, many Cuban-Americans are anticipating a change in policy toward their homeland that reflects both the new president’s campaign promises and shifting views and demographics among a once-solid Republican political bloc.

Mr. Obama won more than one-third of Florida’s Cuban-American vote in November, a voter base that in the past has favored Republican presidential candidates by margins of more than 80 percent.

During months of stumping in the Sunshine State, Mr. Obama promised that as president he would drop increasingly unpopular Bush administration restrictions on travel to Cuba for Cuban-Americans and allow them to send unlimited remittances to the communist-run island.

“Popular support for the [Bush] policy toward Cuba is diminishing,” said Brian Latell, a senior research associate at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies and author of “After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro’s Regime and Cuba’s Next Leader.”

Beyond lifting restrictions put in place by the Bush administration in 2004 that limit travel by Cuban-Americans to Cuba to once every three years, a majority of Cuban-Americans also wants the U.S. trade and investment embargo — now in its 47th year — to be removed.

According to a poll last month by Florida International University, 55 percent of Florida’s Cuban-Americans are against continuing the embargo. The poll said 65 percent want the United States to re-establish diplomatic ties with the island, regardless of its leadership.

The results mark the first time since the poll was conducted in 1991 that a majority of the 900,000 Cuban-Americans in Florida advocate completely abandoning the embargo.

“It’s a logical progression of the exile community’s awareness of the failures of our policies,” said Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group.

Francisco Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), which in the past has supported the embargo, said his organization agrees with Mr. Obama’s proposal to end restrictions on travel and remittances by Cuban-Americans.

“We believe that those restrictions were counterproductive, because we need more of a relationship between Cuban-Americans and Cubans on the island,” he said.

“After all, eight years of the Bush administration didn’t do anything [for Cuba],” he said. “There should be some more imaginative ways to deal with the Cuban government.”

Mr. Hernandez said CANF was preparing a set of recommendations for the new administration but would not specify what they were.

Mr. Obama said during the campaign that he would retain the embargo until real democratic change comes to Cuba.

The country has been governed for the past two years by Raul Castro, who has introduced some modest economic reforms while continuing to clamp down on political freedom. His brother, Fidel, the leader of Cuba since 1959, has been largely out of public view since he had stomach surgery in 2006 and formally stepped down in February, although he met last week with the president of Argentina.

The Cuban-Americans who still support the embargo are mostly older exiles who left Cuba prior to or just after the rise of Fidel Castro, Mr. Bilbao said. With their numbers shrinking and an influx of newer immigrants who have suffered under an embargoed Cuba, where even basic necessities are hard to come by, the changing attitude toward U.S. policy is understandable, he said.

Andy Gomez, an adviser to the U.S. Task Force on Cuba, a group that is under the auspices of the Brookings Institution, said the shift is a result in part of the changing face of the Cuban-American population as well as the failure of the embargo to produce change.

“Isolating our enemies has not worked,” Mr. Gomez said. “Putting conditions on Cuba doesn’t get us anywhere.”

A minority of Cuban-Americans still supports the embargo.

“What I would like from the Obama administration is to manifest very clearly that a free and democratic Cuba is in the best interest of U.S. national security,” said Orlando Gutierrez, co-founder and national secretary of a leading South Florida Cuban group, the Cuban Democratic Directorate.

Mr. Gutierrez said that the new administration must take “concrete steps to help the resistance in Cuba establish a democratic Cuba.” But unlike failed efforts in the 1960s to foment an armed resistance in Cuba, Mr. Gutierrez said the Obama administration should pressure the Cuban government to be accountable for human rights violations, such as the jailing of political opponents, and to free prisoners in exchange for an easing of U.S. restrictions.

“It must be very clear to the Castro regime that in order to get any concession [such as the removal of certain trade restrictions], they must make concessions,” Mr. Gutierrez said.

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