For the better part of five decades, the American political approach to Cuba was a no-brainer: a hard line stance against Fidel Castro, or don’t expect to win.
That’s what makes President Barack Obama’s decision to normalize relations with the longtime communist nation such a surprise, as well as providing a clear signal of changing politics within the Cuban-American community.
New polling released Friday shows a sharp generational divide in Cuban-American attitude towards Obama’s announcement.
For example, Cuban-Americans born in Cuba oppose the new actions by 53 percent, compared to 64 percent support from younger Cubans who were born in the U.S.
Bendixen & Amandi International, El Nuevo Herald, The Miami Herald and The Tampa Bay Times conducted the poll of 400 adult Cuban-Americans December 17-18, a sample that represents nearly 2 million Cuban Americans living in the U.S.
It is the first extensive survey after Obama’s pronouncement this week.
“The poll confirms that on the subject of U.S.-Cuba policy the Cuban-American community is split,” said Bendixen & Amandi managing partner Fernand Amandi.
Of older generations of Cubans, those who arrived in the U.S. before 1980, 29 percent agreed with the plan to normalize relations; 64 percent disagree. With Cubans arriving America within 30 years – after 1980 — support was split: 45 percent approve, and only 44 percent disapprove.
With the younger generation of Cuban-Americans, Obama’s announcement was well-received.
More than half of respondents (53 percent) under the age of 30 welcome the move to normal relations, while 36 percent disagree. Even higher support is found within the 50-to-64 age group; 58 percent agree and 38 percent disagree.
The greatest resistance to Obama’s announcement came from Cubans 65-years-old and older. Only 25 percent support Obama’s announcement; 67 percent opposed.
As the country’s biggest swing state, and the largest electoral presidential prize, Florida remained Democratic after Obama relaxed Cuban travel restrictions in 2011. He later won about half Florida’s Cuban-American vote as he carried the state in 2012.
However, support for this week’s proposed changes in Cuba policy remains noticeably lower in Florida’s Cuban-American community than in other regions of the country. One explanation is Florida’s higher population of first- and second-generation Cuban exiles, who remain staunchly against the Castro government.
Pollsters found only 35 percent of Cubans living in Florida approve of the normalization effort. Of those living in the other parts of the U.S., the number rises to 61 percent.
“The historic exile community whose viewpoint has dominated the debate for the past half century remains staunchly conservative and in opposition to the new measures,” Amandi added. “While the new emerging Cuban American community represented by U.S.-born Cubans and recent arrivals from the island is open to the new course laid out by President Obama.”
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson agrees that South Florida’s attitude over Cuba is in flux, which he says is evident by “going to Miami and talking to folks.”
“I’m as anti-Castro as they come, but it’s time to move on,” the Florida Democrat told AP. “It’s time to get into the 21st century.”
Nearly one-in-four respondents agree with Nelson: 38 percent say it is “time for a change/the embargo hasn’t worked.” Twenty-three percent agree because it will “help the people in Cuba,” and 7 percent believe it is good for the country.
The leading reason why respondents disagree with normalization is a distaste for negotiating with a Communist dictatorship (24 percent), followed by the belief that it would benefit the Castro government (17 percent) and the lack of human rights in Cuba (10 percent).
Eliminating U.S.-Cuba tensions could be seen as part of a larger political strategy for earning Cuban-American votes. Democrats would have a better chance of winning them over based on issues shared with other Hispanics.
Predictably, the loudest Florida critics of Obama’s normalization plans were Republicans Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush. Rubio called the move a “betrayal,” adding that he didn’t care about taking a popular position, as there are too many people he knows who have suffered under Castro regime.
“I don’t care if 99 percent of people in polls disagree with my position,” he said. “This is my position and I feel passionate about it.”
Rubio, the son of Cuban exiles, added that he is glad to be on the side of freedom, democracy, and human rights.
Timing of the announcement, just after the midterms, is proof to many observers that Obama is well aware his new Cuba policy comes with a political risk.
“Did he do it when there was a political cost to him?” asks Republican strategist Ana Navarro. “Did he do it in 2012? No.”
Traditionally, American policy on Cuba has been a reliable GOP tool to turn Cuban-Americans against Democrats. In the 2000 election, Florida was a key player, as George W. Bush defeated Vice President Al Gore there by only 537 votes, winning the White House.
Cuban Americans supported Republicans that year in vast numbers, angered over the Clinton administration using federal agents send a boy back to his father in Cuba.
“That midnight raid to take Elian Gonzalez,” Nelson told the AP, “unified the Cuban American community against Democrats.”
Navarro is sure that Florida was on Obama’s mind during this week’s announcement of changes in U.S.-Cuba policy.
“They were afraid that come November the Cubans would remember,” she said. “The way they did with Al Gore. They’re still very wary.”
The complete poll, which has a margin of error of +/- 4.9 percentage points, is available at bendixenandamandi.com