When Cuban and American leaders announced they would restore diplomatic relations after a standoff lasting more than a half-century, all eyes in the U.S. immediately turned to Miami, where many expected the country’s largest population of Cuban exiles to pour angrily into the streets.
Outrage was decidedly muted, however, with only a handful of demonstrations, while some of the expatriates known for their support of isolationist tactics actually expressed support for the changes.
The response to Wednesday’s surprise announcement by U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro was a reflection of just how much the Cuban-American community has changed since the Cold War days when the U.S. began trying to freeze out the island’s communist government.
Daniel Lafuente, the 27-year-old founder of tech hub LAB Miami, grew up hearing his mother and grandfather talk of their exile. He watched the Arab Spring uprisings with dismay, thinking the U.S. and Cuba were frozen stuck. He remains opposed to Raul Castro and his older brother, Fidel, but like other Cuban-Americans, he is willing after years of heartbreak and strained expectations to see new diplomacy and to let go of demands that the U.S. isolate Cuba.
“This is like a new age,” Lafuente said after hearing Wednesday’s news.
Most of the 2 million Cubans living in the United States call Florida home, and Little Havana has long been the go-to place for demonstrations aimed at isolating the Castros. Cuban artists who tried to perform in Miami were threatened; those who dared perform in Cuba were shunned. But such efforts have faded, and the latest protests tend to draw the same small group of activists.
Younger generations and more-recent arrivals from Cuba tend to be more open to exchange and dialogue. Older exiles whose relatives were killed or imprisoned following the 1959 revolution are less likely to approve of a thaw.
But there are exceptions at all ages: Cuban-born Raul Hernandez, 60, has lived in Miami for 35 years and has two brothers still in Cuba. Travel restrictions kept him from seeing his parents before they died.
“I think the embargo has not been good for the Cuban people because the government never changed,” he said.
Then there is Ahmed Martel, a 43-year-old Web designer who is too young to remember the revolution but lived under the Castro government until he left the island in 1992.
Martel says he is opposed to the plan to strengthen ties and loosen restrictions on Cuba.
“It doesn’t make any sense to put Cuba on the same level as the United States,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense to us to sit down with them and negotiate.”
Ana Lourdes-Cuesta, 45, of Miami, said she couldn’t believe Obama would consider shedding the “terrorist state” label for Cuba and normalizing relations.
“Now we’re going to be friends and get dinner together, kissing babies and shaking hands? No. You can’t erase history,” she said as she waved a Cuban flag.
Although the protesters’ numbers were few, the relentless sound of passing car horns suggested a strong core of opposition remained to resist the changes.
Local leaders and activists said they expected more protests in the coming days. Still, the muted initial reaction to Obama’s vows to encourage bilateral flows of people, information and business while working with Congress to end the 54-year-old trade embargo was strikingly at odds with outdated ideas about what most Cuban-Americans want.
It was long thought that no one could win Florida and become president without support from Cuban-Americans dead set against anything seen as supporting the Castros. But Obama won the state twice while promising to improve U.S.-Cuba relations, and he’s already taken lesser steps that have drawn significant support from Cuban-Americans.
That support comes in part from the thousands of Cubans who regularly travel between Havana and Miami thanks to Obama, and behind the scenes lobbying by Cuban-American business
Recent polls have shown Cuban-American voters in Miami to be evenly divided on the embargo on most exports to Cuba that has been in place since October 1960.
Ramon Saul Sanchez, who runs a group dedicated to helping new arrivals from Cuba, said Obama’s “radical step” will force people in Florida who are passionate about Cuba to become more engaged.
“This isn’t a setback — it’s actually a challenge” for an exile community accustomed to business as usual, he said.
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