Talking about U.S. policy toward Cuba used to be relatively easy for politicians in Florida: say “Cuba libre” or “Cuba sí, Castro no.”
Support for sanctions and the embargo was a given.
But no longer.
The reaction to President Barack Obama’s historic announcement Wednesday to try to reestablish diplomatic ties with Cuba was the latest sign yet that attitudes in the Cuban-American community are changing or, at least, are far more complex than many would think.
Less than half of Cuban-Americans — 47 percent to be exact — favored the embargo in a Latino Decisions poll of 400 highly likely Florida Hispanic voters taken in the final days of the 2014 elections.
Opposition to the embargo stood at 39 percent among likely Cuban-American voters — a result that Latino Decisons pollster Gary Segura found surprisingly high. “The Cuban-American leadership that supports the embargo has to be in a panic over this,” he said.
The poll also showed that only 33 percent of Cuban-American respondents said the embargo was very important. But 32 percent said the issue was not important.
So the intensity of those voters who favor the embargo isn’t overwhelming, according to the poll.
The Latino Decisions poll echoes results from Florida International University’s annual Cuba poll. FIU’s last survey, in May, found 51 percent of Cuban-American voters favored the embargo in Miami-Dade County, which has the nation’s largest concentration of people of Cuban descent, nearly 900,000 people.
Of all Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County, including non-voters, 52 percent opposed the embargo, according to the FIU poll.
That signified a 39 percentage-point decrease since 1991, when FIU first began polling the issue. Meantime, Cuban-American support for unrestricted travel has increased 25 percentage points. Also, 68 percent supported normalizing relations with Cuba.
Asked about that last number, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, an embargo supporter and Obama critic, said the poll doesn’t tell the whole story.
“First of all, on issues of deep principle — such as human rights, dignity and democracy — that we should take our cues from a poll,” Rubio said. “Secondly, we have a poll every two years in this state. It’s called ‘elections.’ As far as I can tell, every one of our members of Congress who has been elected in those districts agrees with my position — and I with their position — on this issue.”
Rubio made the comments during a Miami press conference with U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, all Republicans. His brother, former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, also spoke along with family members of the four Brothers to the Rescue rafter-aid activists who were shot down and killed by Cuban jets in 1996.
That incident led Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen to help persuade Congress to enshrine the Cuban embargo into federal law. They say it was necessary because they worried beforehand that then-President Clinton would unilaterally end the embargo, which had existed in various forms since 1960 but was under the purview of the president.
Now, thanks to that 1996 law known as the Helms-Burton Act, the embargo is supposed to remain until Congress changes the law and Cuba holds free and fair elections, releases political prisoners and guarantees free speech and workers’ rights.
“There’s an extraordinary amount of leverage in the hands of the Cuban opposition” Lincoln Diaz-Balart said.
But the support for the embargo, as the polls show, is waning.
“It is certainly in freefall. Not a single new voice that has spoken out on Cuba policy this year has embraced their position,” said Ric Herrero, executive director of Cuba Now, a nonprofit advocating normalized relations with Cuba.
Cuba Now helped underwrite the portion of the Florida Latino Decisions poll concerning attitudes toward Cuba. The Florida poll and other Latino Decisions polls in other states were paid for by groups that advocate for immigrants and Hispanics.
“As these poll results show, being pro-embargo no longer gets you to 50 percent of the Cuban-American vote in statewide races,” Herrero said.
The polling concerning Cuban-Americans is not definitive. The Latino Decisions sample had an error margin of more than 6 percentage points. And, while it found Cuban-Americans weren’t overwhelmingly in favor of the embargo, its poll found that 65 percent of Cuban-Americans voted for Gov. Rick Scott while only 35 percent voted for Democrat Charlie Crist, who advocated for lifting the embargo and traveling to Cuba.
But media exit polls indicated Crist won Cuban-Americans 50-46 percent. A post-election survey by Scott’s campaign consulting company, OnMessage, found similar results to Latino Decisions, giving Scott 65 percent of the Cuban-American vote to Crist’s 30 percent.
Said Crist: “I don’t know if I won it or not. But I’m happy the President is talking about changing a policy that hasn’t worked.”
Scott’s top political advisor, OnMessage’s Curt Anderson, indicated he’s pleased as well. “Obama’s Cuba gambit will hurt Dem chances to win FL in 16,” Anderson said on Twitter. “Gov Scott capitalized on Charlie Crist’s similar folly — won the Cuban vote big.”
Support for the embargo doesn’t break cleanly down partisan lines.
Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, a possible presidential candidate like Rubio, called Obama’s decision a “good idea.”
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz supports the embargo. On Wednesday, the Weston congresswoman waited until 7:14 p.m. to issue a tepid statement acknowledging Obama’s actions. A minute later, the DNC sent out a statement that blasted Republicans for opposing the president over Cuba.
On Thursday, when asked about Obama, Republican campaign donor and Miami health-insurance tycoon Mike Fernandez was more supportive of the president than was Wasserman Schultz.
“I am not a fan of President Obama but after 50 plus years, this is long overdue,” said Fernandez, who was 12 when his family fled Cuba in 1964. “Let us focus on helping the Cuban people versus hurting the regime. Biology will soon take care of them.”
The head of FIU’s Cuba poll, Guillermo Grenier, said the changes in the Cuban-American community are driven by the passing of an older generation and an influx of people from the island who are more like economic immigrants, instead of political exiles.
The population is changing. And attitudes are changing,” Grenier said. “The days when you have a cafecito at Versailles and say Fidel sucks to get instant support from the community are over.”