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A Shifting Landscape in the United States

More and more Americans – including Cuban-Americans – are realizing that the approach of the last fifty years simply hasn’t helped the Cuban people move closer toward freedom. As a result, growing numbers of Americans are looking for new ideas. WLRN-Miami Herald News' Americas correspondent Tim Padgett put it best when he wrote recently that, “Americans, Floridians and Cuban-Americans are coming to more thoughtful conclusions about the best ways to bring change to a time-warped neighbor.”

In fact, thanks to family travel and remittance reforms implemented by President Obama, Cuban-Americans themselves have been leading the way. The community has come to reject our policy of isolation and resource denial, recognizing that it has failed to facilitate change in Cuba. They are increasingly supportive of social and economic engagement with cuban civil society and are traveling in record numbers to support their families and reconnect with their communities. They are also increasing their financial support to Cuba’s emerging class of over 450,000 private entrepreneurs by providing their friends and relatives with the seed funding and resources to start their businesses and decrease their dependence on the Cuban state.

Florida sugar magnate Alfonso Fanjul became a symbol of that shift when he acknowledged traveling to Cuba earlier this year and said he would now consider investing there. Other Cuban-Americans who are also coming to similar conclusions came to his defense. The political landscape has also shifted, with former Republican Florida Governor Charlie Crist speaking out in favor of a complete overhaul of US-Cuba policy even while he is running to recapture the state’s highest office. That would have been unthinkable for a politician in Florida just a few years ago.

As the AP’s Laura Wides-Munoz reported, “a growing number of powerful South Florida Cuban-American business, civic and political leaders breaking the long-held public line on U.S. relations with Cuba and the Castro government.”

“a growing number of powerful South Florida Cuban-American business, civic and political leaders breaking the long-held public line on U.S. relations with Cuba and the Castro government.” [Wides-Munoz, Associated Press, 2/8/2014]

The New York Times found the same shift, and how some Cuban Americans are already finding ways to help Cuba’s new entrepreneurs:

“The business ideas have ranged from a bikini franchise to a peanut farm, restaurants, and design firms for software and home interiors. But even more novel than the pitches — in a country where entrepreneurship used to be illegal — is the financial muscle behind them: Cuban-Americans whose families lost their previous ventures to Cuba’s Communist government…Many of the first Cubans to leave after Fidel Castro took over are beginning to come back, reuniting with the island they left in bitterness and anger, overcoming decades of heated opposition to its leaders, and partnering with Cubans in direct, new ways.

“[W]hat has emerged in Miami, New York and elsewhere over the past two years, as President Raúl Castro has opened the economy, just a crack, is an alternative approach that emphasizes grass-roots engagement, often through churches, as a tool for giving Cubans skills and independence from the state. Among many Cuban-Americans who now describe themselves as a part of a diaspora, rather than exiles, a new sense of responsibility — to Cubans on the island, not to the property they lost or to fighting the Castros — has gathered strength.” [New York Times, “Some Who Fled Cuba Are Returning To Help, 3/4/14]

“[W]hat has emerged in Miami, New York and elsewhere over the past two years, as President Raúl Castro has opened the economy, just a crack, is an alternative approach that emphasizes grass-roots engagement, often through churches, as a tool for giving Cubans skills and independence from the state. Among many Cuban-Americans who now describe themselves as a part of a diaspora, rather than exiles, a new sense of responsibility — to Cubans on the island, not to the property they lost or to fighting the Castros — has gathered strength.” [New York Times, “Some Who Fled Cuba Are Returning To Help, 3/4/14]

The End of the Third Rail

The shift being felt on the ground is also evident in public polling. A poll conducted by the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council found significant support for normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations, with greater support in Miami-Dade and in Florida than the nation overall. The poll is no outlier. In fact it’s consistent with the trends seen in polls over the last few years. Here are the details.

A majority of Americans, 56%, favor normalization of U.S. ties with Cuba, with an even larger majority approaching two-thirds in both Miami-Dade County, 64%, and Florida, 63% concurring. The New York Times called it a “reflection of shifting American attitudes toward Cuba that confound some long-held assumptions, particularly about Cuban-American antipathy toward the government of Raúl Castro.” [New York Times, “Majority of Americans Favor Ties With Cuba, Poll Finds,” Rick Gladstone, 2/10/2014] The support also transcended the partisan divide. According to Atlantic Council, it’s Americans on both sides of the aisle who are ready for a policy shift. [USA Today, “Poll: Americans favor normal relations with Cuba,” Nicole Gaudiano, 2/11/2014] A changed political landscape

MSNBC’s Chuck Todd covered the polling results extensively and reported that “Cold War style thinking had made Cuba a third rail of foreign policy, particularly in Florida politics. But now, it seems the politics may be changing.” [MSNBC (Video), 2/27/14]

National Journal’s Charlie Cook agreed, stating that “Every once in a while, a political canard is exposed—something that once may have been generally accepted and perhaps true, but has remained a part of the conventional wisdom. Such is the case with the view that any kind of normalization of relations with Cuba is a political third rail; that is to say, if you touch it, you die (or get defeated). In the Cold War era, particularly in the 1960s, normalization of relations with Cuba was a nonstarter, and in fact, it was dangerous for most politicians to support. But that day has long since passed. In all but possibly a handful of congressional districts in Florida and New Jersey—if even there—this is a nothing-burger issue. Few voters would have any problem with it. Like the missile silos in North Dakota, our policy toward Cuba is a Cold War relic that has long since passed its time.” [National Journal, “Poll: It’s Time to Normalize Relations With Cuba,” 2/24/14]

Growing Number of Powerful Cuban-Americans Breaking the Line:

Below are highlights from recent coverage of how the Cuban American community is shifting, not just among younger generations or recent arrivals, but also among the powerful elite who have led Cuban Americans to success for decades:

Among Exile Elite, A Shift:

“Both men are among a growing number of powerful South Florida Cuban-American business, civic and political leaders breaking the long-held public line on U.S. relations with Cuba and the Castro government…‘If you set a policy in place to seek a certain set of objectives. After a while, if those objectives are not achieved, you either changed your policies or you change your objectives,’ said businessman and former Ambassador to Belgium, Paul Cejas, who also left Cuba shortly after the revolution. ‘Diplomacy is a tool of policy. It's a tool of engagement. It's used with even the most bitter of our enemies.’” [Associated Press, “Among exile elite, a shift over Cuba-US policy,” Laura Wides-Munoz, 2/8/2014]

Cuban-Americans Reassessing Old Grievances:

“Now, contrary to what almost anyone could have imagined, the 76-year-old Fanjul has begun to reassess old grievances and tentatively eye Cuba as a place for him and other U.S. businessmen to expand their enterprises. ‘If there is some way the family flag could be taken back to Cuba, then I am happy to do that’, Fanjul said in a rare interview, publicly discussing his recent visits to the island for the first time.” [Washington Post, “Sugar tycoon Alfonso Fanjul now open to investing in Cuba under ‘right circumstances,’” Peter Wallsten, Manuel Roig-Franzia, and Tom Hamburger, 2/2/2014]

Cuban-Americans Don’t Want to Be Left Out of Cuba Opening Up:

“‘I used to be as hard-line as they come,’ said Saladrigas, a member of corporate boards for firms such as Duke Energy and Advance Auto Parts. But now he warns that U.S. businesses, without the ability to invest in Cuba, could find themselves sidelined if the island begins to open up. ‘Do we as Cuban Americans, or do we as Americans, want to be left out of the picture?’ he asked. ‘You can influence Cuba’s future much more by participating in Cuba’s future than by staying away.’” [Washington Post, “Sugar tycoon Alfonso Fanjul now open to investing in Cuba under ‘right circumstances,’” Peter Wallsten, Manuel Roig-Franzia, and Tom Hamburger, 2/2/2014]

Bay of Pigs veteran says the “hard line position is dying and it will disappear.”

“For many years, Tony Zamora opposed U.S. ties with Cuba. He once slipped onto Cuban shores as part of the Bay of Pigs operation and was imprisoned following the failed mission. But today, the Miami-based foreign investment lawyer can be found speaking out about a once taboo subject for many Cuban Americans: increasing dialogue and even business between the two countries. ‘Cuba is a completely different country than what we left in the fifties. Folks here have no clue. They continue to see Cuba from Miami or New York or wherever they are located. You have to spend time there and talk to the Cuban people. The hard line position is dying and it will disappear,’ says Zamora, who was once an active member of the Cuban American National Foundation, an organization that has been a leading voice of Cuban exiles against relations with Cuba.” [NBCnews.com, “Exiles in America soften stance on Cuba ties,” March 12, 2014]

Cuban-American conference on normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations went off “without protests.”

“This is a historic event that unites different organizations that are willing to sit down and discuss ways to stimulate the normalization of relations,’ said Hugo Cancio, publisher of OnCuba, a Miami-based magazine which opened an office in Cuba last year. ‘We want to tell the U.S. and the Cuban governments to find a way to better the lives of the Cuban people, and to let us participate in the economic transformation of Cuba.’… ‘It just shows that the community is really ready to have a serious debate on U.S.-Cuba policy," said Ricardo Herrero, a director of the Cuba Study Group, a Miami exile organization that supports closer ties with Cuba. "Cuba is no longer the third rail in politics. People see all the activity that is going on in Cuba and they are looking for opportunities now that there are cracks in the system down there." [Reuters: “Cuban Americans hold rare meeting to discuss normalising Cuba relations” By David Adams, March 15, 2014]

“Historic” conference of Cuban-Americans and Cubans held in Miami on normalization of U.S.-Cuba.

“A rare conference of supporters of normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations heard calls Saturday for the Obama administration to allow more travel to the island and remove it from a list of supporters of terrorism. ‘This is historic’ because of the participation by speakers from Cuba as well as U.S. activists against Washington sanctions, said Hugo Cancio, a veteran promoter of Cuban music in Miami and one of the conference organizers.” [Miami Herald: “Supporters of stronger US relations with Cuba stage rare gathering in Miami” By Juan O. Tamayo, March 15, 2014]