For the better part of 50 years, the only viable response for most American politicians toward Cuba was simple – the tougher on the communist regime, the better.
But President Barack Obama Monday showed just how much the politics of Cuba have changed, and how quickly, with a move that might have been considered unthinkable not so long ago – lifting U.S. restrictions on family travel and money transfers back to the island nation.
Obama’s policy shift is one that former President Bill Clinton wanted to pursue but backed away. And it’s a complete reversal from the Bush administration, which further tightened restrictions on Cuban-American family travel in 2004 to two weeks every three years.
The new Democratic administration is benefiting from a political shift among Cuban Americans, one that Obama was well aware of in 2007 when he stood in the same Little Havana auditorium where Ronald Reagan famously proclaimed, "Cuba si, Castro no," and said he supported easing the U.S. restrictions against Cuba.
For most of the recent history, U.S.-Cuba policy has been driven by the sentiment felt among South Florida’s Cuban-American exile community, which remained fervently anti-Fidel Castro.
They voted lockstep Republican since the failed Bay of Pigs invasion under President John F. Kennedy and made it clear that politicians who didn’t share their hard-line views on Castro risked being tagged as “soft on communism” – a label no Democrat could afford to wear.
But in recent years, younger Cuban-Americans and more recent Cuban exiles have more moderate views than those who fled during Castro’s early years. And some of the original Cuban exiles who strongly supported the U.S. embargo against Cuba are having second thoughts, because the policy has yet to topple Castro's regime.
Also, there was some backlash in the Cuban-American community to the stricter restrictions adopted by President George W. Bush in 2004.
Obama saw this opening during his campaign and seized it Monday – announcing the changes just days before he attends the Summit of the Americas, where Latin American leaders have vowed to bring up the Cuba issue, even though it is not officially on the agenda.
“It’s the first step toward changing the failed policy toward Cuba,” said Fernand Amandi, executive vice president of Bendixen & Associates, a consulting firm specializing in Cuba for the past 25 years. “The growing segment of the Cuban American electorate – second and third generation, newer Cuban exiles – will welcome this policy change as one that’s long overdue.”
Still, for as far as Obama has come on the issue, there are signs that even he recognizes that appearing too “soft on Cuba” still carries political risks.
Obama stopped short of lifting the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba – indicating he was keeping it in place as leverage to encourage further changes by the Castro regime.
And Obama did not announce his Cuba policy himself, but rather had his Senior Director of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Daniel Restrepo, and his Press Secretary Robert Gibbs unveil it at Monday’s daily press briefing.
“In taking these steps to help bridge the gap among divided Cuban families and to promote the increased flow of information and humanitarian items to the Cuban people, President Obama is working to fulfill the goals he identified both during his presidential campaign and since taking office,” Gibbs said.
Indeed the White House said Obama’s policy shift, adopted with no concessions from the Cuban government, is designed to put pressure on the Castro regime. In addition, Obama hopes to shift some of the blame for the standstill in U.S.- Cuba relations away from the United States and toward Castro and his brother, Raul.
A CNN poll last week found that two-thirds of Americans think the United States should lift its travel ban on Cuba, and three-quarters support relations with the island.
There’s also an openness to relations at the political heart of U.S.-Cuban policy -- South Florida.
A 2007 Florida International University poll had found for the first time since it was first conducted in 1991 that the majority of Miami’s Cuban Americans -- more than 60 percent -- support easing travel and remittance restrictions. And about 65 percent said they support a dialogue with the Cuba, up from about 56 percent in 2004.
That was part of the reason for the tough Democratic challenges that faced both Reps. Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, two Cuban-American Republicans from Miami.
Still, Cuba is an issue where passions run high. And Obama’s policy announcement drew polarized reactions.
In a joint statement, the Diaz-Balart brothers said, “President Obama has committed a serious mistake by unilaterally increasing Cuban-American travel and remittance dollars for the Cuban dictatorship.”
For others, the changes aren’t enough
“These new Cuba policies to ease travel restrictions are steps in the right direction,” Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said in a statement. “But more needs to be done.”
Even some of those who want normalized relations with Cuba are skeptical Obama’s plan will work.
“These are very limited changes,” said Jaime Suchliki, director of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban Studies.
“In every new administration, especially the Democrats, there’s an attempt to reach out, open dialogue,” Suchliki continued, “and nothing changes.”
In the early part of his first term, President Clinton began discussions with the State Department about easing travel restrictions and remittances for those with family in Cuba.
“There was a general sentiment that the policy needed to be looked at and that the restrictions were outdated,” said Joe Lockhart, a former Clinton press secretary.
But attempts to ease the embargo abruptly ended when the Castro regime shot down planes operated by the Cuban-American group Brothers to the Rescue in 1996, a move that led to the Helms-Burton act that further toughened sanctions.
“Any effort to liberalize the restrictions crashed landed when Cuba shot down the Brothers to the Rescue plane,” recalled former Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry.
Clinton condemned the action in the "strongest possible terms,” and any policy changes that might appear to be rewarding the hostile act that killed four people was off the table.
In Obama’s announcement Monday, just one aspect of his new policy caught some observers by surprise -- a stipulation that authorizes U.S. telecommunications companies to operate cell phone services in Cuba and license satellite television and radio companies to provide service to Cubans.
Restrepo conceded that the Cuban government could stop part of the administration’s telecommunications initiative.
But calling the Castro regime’s bluff seems to be part of the policy’s point.
“So that if anyone is standing in the way of the flow of information to the Cuban people it is the Cuban government,” Restrepo said.
Lisa Lerer contributed.