News on Wednesday that the United States will restore diplomatic
relations with Cuba for the first time in more than a half century
divided America's 1.5-million-strong Cuban exile community and
threatened to shake up the political landscape in the vital
battleground state of Florida.
The reaction in Florida, which is home to about 80 percent of the
nation's Cuban-American population, reflects a generational shift in
an exile community whose powerful political influence in the United
States and steadfast support for the Republican Party helped keep
U.S. sanctions on Cuba in place for decades.
But with President Barack Obama's vow to push for "an honest and
serious debate" about lifting the United States' long-standing
economic embargo against Cuba, many Cuban exiles welcomed the turn,
seeing a chance for more engagement with the homeland they left
"It's amazing," said Hugo Cancio, who came to Miami in the 1980
Mariel boatlift and runs a magazine with offices in Miami and
Havana. "This is a new beginning, a dream come true for the 11.2
million Cubans in Cuba, and I think it will provoke a change of
mentality here too in this community."
"I'm ecstatic," he added. "I've been working for this moment for 25
Such enthusiasm was not universal. In Miami's Little Havana
neighborhood, occupants of passing cars screamed "Obama traitor" in
Spanish. Other people on a sidewalk shouted "Obama communista."
"This is nothing to be happy about," said Maria-Angeles Martinez,
50, who joined a crowd voicing displeasure at Versailles, a popular
Cuban restaurant. "I don't believe in talking about anything with
the Castros. It's freedom or nothing."
Hardcore foes of former Cuban President Fidel Castro and his brother
and current President Raul Castro have been a potent political force
in Florida, one of the country's most hard- fought states in
Older exiles who oppose any opening to Cuba still wield considerable
influence. Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who on Tuesday said
he was actively exploring a presidential bid in 2016, was quick to
criticize the White House's move to restore diplomatic ties as
But the diehard anti-Castro generation is aging. And with many
younger exiles having arrived since 1980 with no direct memories of
life under Castro and many more Cuban-Americans born in the United
States, there is a younger generation of Cuban-Americans that is
more pragmatic and more influenced by the needs of relatives who
remain in Cuba.
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Obama's announcement could complicate efforts by Bush, a Republican,
to rally support for a presidential bid in a Cuban-American
community whose divisions may be accentuated by a restoration in
diplomatic ties. Many Republicans have struggled to win the
presidency by taking Florida's Electoral College votes, which at 29
ties it with New York as No. 3 among the U.S. states in electoral
votes. Obama won Florida twice.
Bush, whose father, George H.W.,
and brother George W. were both U.S. presidents, is considered the
Republican frontrunner in the 2016 race for the White House.
Obama's announcement on Cuba was welcomed by younger Cuban-Americans
who have increasingly pushed for change and vote Democrat in growing
numbers, a contrast to older exiles who believe President John. F.
Kennedy - a Democrat - betrayed them during the failed 1961 Bay of
"It's no exaggeration to say that this is a historic day," said
Pedro Freyre, a Cuban-American attorney in Miami who was formerly a
Republican and a one-time hardliner on Cuba but now calls himself a
conservative Democrat. "I think it is the right thing to do at the
Some Cuban exiles embraced the prospect of trying something new with
Cuba after so many years. At Sergio's, a popular Cuban restaurant in
Miami, Octavio De Armas, 62, speculated about the future of an
island he left as a child, as he sipped a Cuban espresso sitting at
a outdoor patio.
"If things like this cafe can start happening there, if people can
have a better life, I'm all for change," he said.
(Additional reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Fla.; Editing by
Jason Szep and Leslie Adler)
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