Obama’s Cuba Visit Reflects Shift of Cuban-Americans Away From the GOP

Younger Cuban Americans are radically departing from the political views of their elders

Achy Obejas

Barack Obama talks to tourists and Cubans at his arrival to the Havana Cathedral, on March 20, in the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to Cuba in 88 years. (YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)

On Sun­day, after Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma land­ed in Cuba, a video sur­rep­ti­tious­ly shot from a Cen­tral Havana rooftop showed his motor­cade mak­ing its way through the most­ly wet, emp­ty streets, then stop­ping to let him out at the exclu­sive Pal­adar San Cristóbal. That’s when a curi­ous thing hap­pens: The Cubans on the rooftops — includ­ing the now shaky cam­era oper­a­tor — start scream­ing, Oba­ma! Obama!”

Younger Cuban Americans, beneficiaries of American education and civil society, and less personally invested in the pros and cons of the Cuban Revolution, are slowly taking control.

Dozens of sim­i­lar videos post­ed online showed Obama’s car­a­van glid­ing through the city as ordi­nary Cubans enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly chant­ed his name and shout­ed USA! USA! USA!”

Even on a com­put­er screen from thou­sands of miles away, hear­ing Cubans cheer­ing Oba­ma out­side the Plaza of the Rev­o­lu­tion, where Fidel Cas­tro railed against Yan­kee impe­ri­al­ism for half a cen­tu­ry, was jar­ring. Even more unset­tling, per­haps, has been find­ing Cubans and Cuban Amer­i­cans from all sides of the polit­i­cal spec­trum sud­den­ly hope­ful that, though it won’t be easy, Obama’s efforts will, even­tu­al­ly, help bring gen­uine change to U.S. rela­tions with Cuba.

But vision­ary as Oba­ma seems right now, he is less the author of a his­toric realign­ment than the ben­e­fi­cia­ry of extra­or­di­nary devel­op­ments among Cubans, and per­haps more impor­tant­ly, among Cuban Americans.

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.

The chasm between Cubans on and off the island has been slow­ly dimin­ish­ing, thus the embrace of Obama’s vis­it by Cubans and, sig­nif­i­cant­ly, the major­i­ty of Cuban Amer­i­cans. In recent years, Cuban Amer­i­cans have been pour­ing mon­ey into Cuba, more than $1 bil­lion annu­al­ly accord­ing to some sources, and open­ly — although not nec­es­sar­i­ly legal­ly — invest­ing in a lot of new busi­ness in part­ner­ship with rel­a­tives and friends on the island.

In fact, in a March 2015 sur­vey of Cuban Amer­i­cans by the firm Ben­dix­en & Aman­di, 67 per­cent said they were plan­ning an upcom­ing trip to Cuba — a con­fes­sion that in the past could have got­ten you killed on Miami’s Fla­gler Street.

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.

Its coun­ter­part gen­er­a­tion in Cuba — the mil­i­tants, or come­can­de­las, as they’re fre­quent­ly called — have also been dying, or retir­ing, allow­ing for the pos­si­bil­i­ty of greater open­ings. Even though Raúl Cas­tro is hard­ly a spring chick­en, it’s his ascen­sion to pow­er after the old­er Fidel Cas­tro stepped down — and his delib­er­ate recruit­ment of younger Cubans into the country’s admin­is­tra­tion — that has allowed for mar­ket reforms and the licens­ing of small entrepreneurs.

Raúl’s offi­cial suc­ces­sor, and the next pres­i­dent of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel, was born after the tri­umph of the Rev­o­lu­tion — as is the case with the major­i­ty of Cuban pop­u­la­tions on both sides of the Straits of Flori­da. Though Fidel is said to sup­port the renew­al of diplo­mat­ic ties with the Unit­ed States, it’s almost unimag­in­able that it could have hap­pened on his watch.

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. Hell, there was even a Cuban-Amer­i­cans for Bernie Sanders ral­ly in Mia­mi this month — mind­blow­ing when just a gen­er­a­tion ago, being accused of being a social­ist was as bad an insult as could be hurled among Cuban Americans.

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.

Sure, there are still rem­nants of the old guard, like Mar­co Rubio, the Cuban-Amer­i­can sen­a­tor and erst­while sav­ior of the Repub­li­can Par­ty, who was recent­ly embar­rassed out of the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial race after he lost all but one of Florida’s coun­ties (Mia­mi-Dade) to Don­ald Trump. Though demo­graph­i­cal­ly younger than most Cuban-Amer­i­can hard­lin­ers, Rubio has railed against Obama’s reforms. Rubio is so hard­core that he has even spite­ful­ly put a Sen­ate hold on Rober­ta Jacob­son, the pro­posed U.S. ambas­sador to Mex­i­co, because, as assis­tant sec­re­tary of state, she helped nego­ti­ate Obama’s Cuba opening.

But Rubio was a last gasp for the old guard. Con­sid­er this: In Mia­mi-Dade Coun­ty, where the Lati­no pop­u­la­tion is over­whelm­ing­ly Cuban, there were 256,407 reg­is­tered His­pan­ic Repub­li­cans and 126,255 His­pan­ic Democ­rats in 2006. By Feb­ru­ary of this year, His­pan­ic Repub­li­cans had edged up to 256,479 while His­pan­ic Democ­rats grew to an astound­ing 209,504. In oth­er words, many Cuban Amer­i­cans were prob­a­bly more inter­est­ed in the Clin­ton-Sanders race than in Rubio’s.

Cuban-Amer­i­can aban­don­ment of the Repub­li­cans means Flori­da (if not Cuba, as the hard­lin­ers would pre­fer) is lib­er­at­ed, and U.S. politi­cians and gov­ern­ment offi­cials are final­ly free to make Cuba pol­i­cy based on U.S. and Cuban mutu­al interests.

No, Obama’s speech in Havana this week won’t make much dif­fer­ence right away to the dai­ly lives of Cubans on the island. And, yes, there are plen­ty of things that need to be dealt with that he didn’t touch upon and won’t like­ly act on before he leaves the White House — such as Guan­tanamo, the Cuban Adjust­ment Act and the embar­go — that are cru­cial for an hon­est rela­tion­ship of equals. But Obama’s new atti­tude is impor­tant not just to the Unit­ed States and Cuba, but to the rest of the West­ern Hemi­sphere, which has long strug­gled with how to han­dle the bit­ter­ness between the two countries.

Most impor­tant­ly, the speech went a long way to remove the threat of the Unit­ed States from Cuba’s hori­zons, and to empha­size that the Unit­ed States knows the future of Cuba depends sole­ly on Cubans, both on and off the island. And that cer­tain­ly was some­thing to cheer about. 

Achy Obe­jas, a Havana-born mem­ber of the In These Times Board of Edi­tors, is the author of Ruins (Akashic 2009, akashic​books​.com) and Aguas & Otros Cuen­tos (Edi­to­r­i­al Letras Cubanas, 2009). A for­mer staff writer for the Chica­go Tri­bune, she is also the trans­la­tor, into Span­ish, of Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-win­ning The Brief Won­drous Life of Oscar Wao (River­head 2008). She is cur­rent­ly the Dis­tin­guished Vis­it­ing Writer at Mills Col­lege, Oak­land, Calif.
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