Much of the discussion about President Obama’s opening of our relations with Cuba and his recent visit there have focused on the impact they will have on Cuba itself as well as other Latin American countries. But let’s be honest, most Democrats have known for a long time that – as Obama has said repeatedly – the embargo wasn’t working. The reason things didn’t change is because of the role Cuban Americans played in electoral politics – particularly in the huge swing state of Florida.
Traditionally Cuban Americans (who have been fiercely anti-communist) have parted ways with other Latinos and voted Republican. But just as generational demographics are affecting the overall electorate, they are having an impact in the Cuban American community as well. Achy Obejas documents that change.
Where once Cuban Americans seemed almost universally opposed to any efforts to better relations with the island (and held American foreign policy hostage because of their outsized influence in Electoral College-rich Florida), the majority now support it…
Why the big change? Part of it is generational. The older, more entrenched Cuban-American community has been slowly, and literally, dying off. That’s the generation that was blowing each other up in Miami in the 1970s over who was more anti-Castro, and which loudly supported the U.S.’s economic embargo on Cuba…
In the United States, younger Cuban Americans, beneficiaries of American education and civil society, and less personally invested in the pros and cons of the Cuban Revolution, are also slowly taking control. Children of the first generation of exiles make up an ever-growing share of the Cuban-American vote. And that vote—supplemented by newer arrivals from Cuba who tend to have a less politicized attitude—has been increasingly more open to dialogue and reform in U.S. policy toward Cuba…
Practically speaking, this has meant a move away from the Republican Party and toward the Democrats. It’s been gradual: from 25 percent of the Cuban-American vote in 2000, to 29 percent in 2004, to 35 percent in 2008, to 48 percent in 2012. And it’s precisely this trend that has permitted an American president to reconsider the United States’ historic—and hostile—ties to Cuba.
In that sense, President Obama didn’t really create an opening, he simply took advantage of one that was already underway. To the extent that Cuban Americans will have an impact on how Florida “swings” electorally in the future, this will pose an almost insurmountable hurdle for Republicans in presidential contests. If they lose Florida, it is hard to find a way that they can reach 270 electoral votes.
As Obejas also notes, the dissidents in Cuba have typically aligned themselves with the anti-communist Cuban American Republicans. That is changing too. And so it is powerful to note the reaction of that community to President Obama’s visit and speech.
Leading Cuban dissidents who met with Mr. Obama at the American Embassy after the speech described his visit as a transformational moment.
“It was the speech we and millions of Cubans yearned to hear,” Jose Daniel Ferrer, the leader of Cuba’s largest dissident group, the Patriotic Union of Cuba, said in an email. “It was a light in the dark.”
To the extent that this opening frees up electoral politics in Florida from being held hostage to the anti-communist frame of the Cold War, that light might not only shine in Cuba, but in U.S. electoral politics as well.