Obama reignites political debate over Cuba

AP , Thursday 18 Dec 2014

Obama, Castro
File Photo: .S. President Barack Obama (L) greets Cuba's President Raul Castro before giving his speech at the memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg in this December 10, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

The surprising move by President Barack Obama to restore US ties with Cuba reignited long-simmering political passions over the fate of the island nation, reinforcing yet another flashpoint difference between Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and several Republicans eyeing bids for the White House.

Yet even in Florida, the nation's most essential swing state, those distinctions may not matter as much as they once did amid an increasingly diverse electorate of Hispanic voters and younger Cuban-Americans, many of whom do not share the same fervor to depose Cuba's Castro brothers as their parents and grandparents.

"If you're a third-generation Cuban, in your mid-30s, went to college here ... things that define your worldview are not Cuban embargo politics," said Steve Schale, a Florida-based Democratic strategist who led Obama's state effort in 2012.

Among potential Republican presidential candidates, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio led the attack on Obama's plans Wednesday to ease of economic and travel restrictions on Cuba, to open an embassy in Havana and review the communist nation's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. He and others called the decision an appeasement of the Castro regime and criticized the release of Cuban spies as part of the deal.

"When America is unwilling to advocate for individual liberty and freedom of political expression 90 miles from our shores, it represents a terrible setback for the hopes of all oppressed people around the globe," said Rubio, the son of Cuban exiles.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who announced plans this week to "actively explore" running for president and recently reaffirmed his support for the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, said Obama's decision undermined efforts to create a free and Democratic Cuba. He accused Obama of effectively rewarding dictators "with a disastrous human rights record."

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said Cuba had not made enough internal changes to warrant the US policy shift, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said the Obama administration was "being played by brutal dictators whose only goal is maintaining power."

Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the Republican Party's presidential nominee in 2008 and a possible candidate in 2016, respectively, suggested Obama's actions could affect relations with Iran and were a harbinger of a more "damaging chapter to America's national security" to come.

Such strident opposition to any deal with the Castro regime fits with decades of Republican politics and efforts to build a loyal following among Cuban exiles in South Florida. But there were some breaks with the hard line taken by most in the party.

The US Chamber of Commerce, an important lobby that usually backs Republicans candidates for office, said the steps would help "free enterprise to flourish." The American Farm Bureau Federation, another loyal GOP group, also supported Obama's actions.

Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, who flew from Cuba with Alan Gross, an American held in Cuba for five years who was released Wednesday, said, "The policy we've had in the last 50 years has done more to keep the Castros in power."

Support for that policy helped Ronald Reagan during the 1980s and propelled George H.W. Bush to victories in the state in 1988 and 1992. In 2000, George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in Florida following a 36-day recount in a race that pivoted in part on outrage over the Elian Gonzalez custody battle.

But Obama won Florida in both of his campaigns, helped in part by shifting demographics in the state and an influx of Puerto Ricans in central Florida. The president also made inroads with Cuban-Americans, with exit polls in 2012 showing Obama winning nearly half of the Cuban-American vote, the most by any Democratic presidential candidate.

A Pew Research Center analysis of 2013 survey data found that less than half of registered Cuban-American voters lean Republican, compared with 64 percent a decade ago. During the same time period, the share of Cubans who support Democrats has doubled from 22 percent for 44 percent.

Clinton, the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination should she run again, backed Obama's policy in a statement late Wednesday, saying that "despite good intentions, our decades-long policy of isolation has only strengthened the Castro regime's grip on power." She said the best way to change Cuba "is to expose its people to the values, information and material comforts of the outside world."

Clinton had previously called the embargo a failure, writing in her most recent memoir it gives the Castro regime "a foil to blame for Cuba's economic woes."

A potential Democratic presidential rival, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, echoed those views, saying via Twitter on Wednesday it was "time to reset our Cuba policy."

Despite the changes in Florida, it is still home to about 70 percent of the nation's 2 million Cuban-Americans. Former Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, who fled Cuba as a teenager and became the nation's first Cuban-American senator, predicted the issue would energize the Cuban-American community — even the more recent generations who grew up in Florida.

"She better hope that they execute this properly," Martinez said of Clinton, "or she'll be sorry that she took that position."

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