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Cuba embargo slips as South Florida's top priority
Date: 11/3/2008

There will be many conclusions to draw from the 2008 election, but voters in South Florida have made one thing clear - the political appeal of the Cuba embargo is nearing its end.

The next time a candidate for national office campaigns in South Florida, he or she will have to discard the well-worn hard line on Cuba policy and adopt a platform that addresses the concerns of an increasingly diverse community.

Cuban-Americans, like most Americans, would seem to care more about a candidate's position on the economic-recovery plan these days than on the transition in Cuba. Recent polling suggests that large majorities of Cuban-Americans favor candidates who will prioritize housing and health care over transition in Cuba.

Hitting an anti-Castro note sounds off-key in a state that has the third-highest number of foreclosures in the country.

Beyond mere fatigue with the embargo, many Cuban-Americans also are having second thoughts about U.S. policy toward Cuba. Over the past eight years, the Bush administration has driven a wedge through the community by imposing new restrictions on the ability of U.S. residents to travel and send remittances to Cuba.

These policies have forced many Cuban-Americans who had reflexively supported the embargo to reconsider the impact that sanctions were having on their community and friends and family.

In Miami last month, I met a Cuban-American who changed his views on the embargo after traveling to the island with his father. He told me, "The Bush restrictions forced many in our community who blindly supported the hard line to stop and think, 'Wait a minute. I'm anti-Castro. But are we doing the right thing?'”

Another said to me, "Cuba for my generation is not Fidel Castro. It's the grandmother, the sister that you left behind."

Those politicians who would cling to policies of extreme isolation hold an outdated view of their constituents.

Today, majorities of Cuban-Americans favor not only the rollback of Bush administration restrictions on travel and remittances, but also allowing unrestricted travel to Cuba by all Americans.

Large majorities of Cuban-Americans also favor diplomatic negotiations with Cuba and a dialogue that would include Cuban dissidents and representatives of the Cuban government. Even support for the embargo, an article of faith in South Florida for years, is rapidly eroding.

Fewer than 60 percent of Cuban-Americans support the embargo, according to a 2007 poll by Florida International University, compared with 66 percent in 2000 and 78 percent in 1997.

While the Cuban-American electorate - which trends older and more Republican than the broader community - historically has been among the most loyal supporters of the embargo, there is a growing center of voters and would-be voters emerging who care more about jobs, health care and visiting their family and friends in Cuba than Fidel Castro.

Excitement over Barack Obama's candidacy, combined with concern about President Bush's sanctions against Cuba and the state of the economy, are driving political participation among exactly the type of voters who are least likely to support current policy.

Tens of thousands of new Democrats made their voices heard in Miami-Dade County in this election, providing a tremendous boost to Democratic congressional candidates against incumbent Cuban-American Republicans that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Statewide, Florida is becoming younger, more progressive and more Hispanic. The new voters that have been engaged in the political process are more likely to add to the voices challenging the conventional wisdom in South Florida and help to marginalize supporters of a policy of extreme isolation for years to come.

"There is a generational and economic shift," Joe Garcia told me last month.

Mr. Garcia, who has mounted a strong Democratic challenge to Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart in Florida's 25th Congressional District, pointed to the U.S. economic crisis and anger over the restrictions on travel and remittances by Cuban-Americans as factors influencing voters in South Florida.

These changing demographics present a political opportunity for the next president, members of Congress and the candidates who seek to replace them to appeal to a community that is more diverse politically than it has been given credit for.

Responding to the frustration and, in some cases, resentment of the embargo as a political issue that has set in to much of the Cuban-American community would be a popular move.

In this age of permanent campaigns, there is no doubt that some political strategists are already looking at their 2010 calendars. They should take note: Relying on tough rhetoric and hard-line Cuba policies as an electoral strategy in Florida is over.

Jake Colvin is vice president with the National Foreign Trade Council and a fellow with the New Ideas Fund, where he is working on a project on U.S.-Cuba policy.