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Does Obama's Opening to Cuba Help Donald Trump in Florida?

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 9/03/2016 William M. LeoGrande

2016-03-09-1457531464-7849211-6871297603_453af59074_bRubioatCPAC.jpg © Provided by The Huffington Post 2016-03-09-1457531464-7849211-6871297603_453af59074_bRubioatCPAC.jpg
Marco Rubio at CPAC 2016 (Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Florida Republican primary on March 15 is Marco Rubio's last chance to salvage his sinking campaign. If Donald Trump beats Rubio is his home state, the freshman senator is finished. No doubt Rubio hopes that his Cuban American heritage will help him wrack up an overwhelming majority among the state's most reliably Republican constituency. But, ironically, Rubio's strident opposition to President Barack Obama's opening to Cuba may backfire, and prove to be his downfall.
On December 17, 2014, when Obama announced his intention to normalize relations with Cuba, Rubio's reaction, like that of most Republican presidential hopefuls, was predictably scathing. "This president is the single worst negotiator we have had in the White House in my lifetime," Rubio declared. Obama gave the Cuban government "everything it asked for and received no assurances of any advances of democracy and freedom." He went on to call the opening to Cuba "absurd...outrageous and disgraceful."
Rubio caustic commentary garnered considerable press attention and raised his profile among the crowded field of Republican contenders-- so he kept at it. When the White House announced that Obama would travel to Cuba later this month, Rubio hit the same themes."A year and two months after the opening of Cuba, the Cuban government remains as oppressive as ever," he said. Obama's trip would have "disastrous consequences."
For years, uncompromising hostility toward Cuba was the path to the political hearts of Florida's Cuban Americans, who make up 5% of the state's electorate and register Republican by a two to one margin. But the Cuba issue has become more complicated politically than Rubio's rhetoric suggests. The once monolithic hard-line community has gradually become more moderate. Polling by Florida International University's Cuba Research Institute has followed that evolution from 1991, when 87% supported the embargo, to 2014, when 52% favored lifting it.
The FIU polls reveal that the shift in Cuban American opinion is a result of demographic change. Older exiles and those who came in the first waves of migration are the most conservative; those who have come more recently are more moderate. The reasons are not hard to discern. Exiles who arrived in the 1960s and 1970s came as political refugees and often lost everything by choosing exile. Recent arrivals, especially those who came in the post-cold war era, are mostly economic refugees. Unlike the exiles, they maintain ties to family on the island, send remittances, and travel back and forth. For them, normal state-to-state relations facilitate family ties.
By 2014, exiles who arrived before 1980 constituted just 20% of the community in Florida, and with some 50,000 new immigrants arriving annually, the influence of the old guard is steadily waning.
Cuban American reaction to Obama's opening to Cuba reflects this new reality. A Bendixen-Amandi International poll last December found that 56% supported normalization and 53% supported lifting the embargo. Even among Cuban American Republicans, 42% favored lifting the embargo. Other Floridians, anticipating the economic benefits of reconciliation, are even more in favor of repairing relations with Cuba. A 2014 Atlantic Council poll found that 63% of Floridians favored better relations--a higher percentage than the national total of 56%.
Of course, Cuba is not a salient issue for most voters, but it is for Cuban Americans. In the 2014 FIU poll, 64% of registered Cuban American voters said that a candidate's position on Cuba was important in determining their vote, and 53% said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate supporting normalization.

Cuban American support for reconciliation with Cuba could work to Trump's advantage in the Florida primary. Among the major Republican presidential candidates, only Trump did not reflexively denounce Obama's policy. "The concept of opening with Cuba is fine," he said in December 2014, though he added--not surprisingly--"We should have made a better deal."
While Rubio is soliciting support from the shrinking pool of old-timers in the Cuban American community by bashing Obama's policy, Trump could steal a march on him by arguing that dealing with Cuba will be good for Cuban Americans and good for Florida's economy. The impact on Rubio's political future could be huge.
William M. LeoGrande is coauthor with Peter Kornbluh of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

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