Opinion: For Obama, wind shifts on Cuba


WEST NEW YORK, N.J. — For a decade now — the fervent anti-Castro movement, which has influenced U.S. foreign policy ever since the Cuban Revolution of 1961, has been losing its grip on its community in America.

Polls and anecdotal evidence, including the record numbers of Cuban-Americans who voted Democratic in the 2008 presidential elections, indicate a more moderate strain of thought is becoming the mode of the day.

The trend has worried the hard-liners of the Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF) — the group whose name can still send chills up the spine of American politicians, like Albio Sires, the New Jersey Democrat representing this area.

But the Cuban lobby, which has always prided itself on having friends in high places, this time found its best friend in the regime of Fidel Castro and his brother Raul. After years in decline, the death of Cuban political prisoner dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo has galvanized the old guard and derailed President Barack Obama’s plans to normalize relations with the Caribbean island nation.

As a candidate, Obama courted electoral danger in Florida by promising to ask Cuba to begin a “new era in relations.” Once elected, he promptly made good on that promise, using that exact phrase at a Summit of the Americas gathering in April 2009. Cuba’s leader Raul Castro, who the U.S. prevented from attending, responded with a statement offering talks on all subjects.

Then, in June 2009, the Organization of American States (OAS) — once viewed as something of a rubber stamp for U.S. policy in the region — voted to readmit Cuba after a suspension that began in 1962. But conditions the Obama administration inserted into the OAS resolution — including demands for a release of political prisoners like Tamayo and guarantees of freedom of speech — not surprisingly, led Cuba to refuse the OAS invitation.

Since then, it’s been all downhill. Obama lifted travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans and made it easier for them to wire money to relatives on the island. But several rounds of talks with Cuban officials on migration issues have gone nowhere because Cuban officials repeatedly refused to discuss human rights issues or Washington’s call for free elections.

And then came Tamayo, a bricklayer swept up by Castro’s regime because he had a habit of complaining about censorship and the island’s lack of political freedoms. Tamayo died in March after a long hunger strike.

Following Tamayo's death, Obama publicly condemned Cuba. He renewed his call for the release of all political prisoners and chastised the Castros for not “embracing an opportunity to enter a new era” of relations with the U.S.

After a year of trying to engineer a breakthrough, the Obama administration appears to have rejoined the fight, though perhaps not as stridently as the anti-Castro lobby would like.

In this Hudson River town, which is home to the second largest concentration of Cuban-Americans after Miami, the hard-line older generation of exiles with their angry, fervent memories of fleeing Castro’s revolution has given way to a younger crowd willing to think the unthinkable (and sometimes even speak out publicly).

Maybe isolation, after nearly a half century of U.S. economic embargo, has been a failure? Maybe it even has something to do with the fact that Fidel Castro’s regime now ranks as the longest running tyranny on earth?

Of course, the embargo is a failure and has been for decades. Even among Cuban-Americans, this is now clear. Florida International University, which conducts a yearly poll of Cuban-American sentiment, finds an overwhelming majority — 65 percent — now favor direct dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba.

The FIU poll identified a major tipping point in 2008, when for the first time less than half of respondents — just 45 percent supported the continuing U.S. economic embargo. That's down sharply from 2004, when 66 percent wanted the embargo to continue.

For those who have tried to keep the flame of anti-communism alive some 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, keeping these winds of change at bay has been a challenge. At a rally here last weekend marking the 49th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the wound seemed fresh.

The mostly gray-haired crowd stood on the blustery Palisades Cliffs overlooking Manhattan, decrying Castro’s tyrannical rule and lionizing the U.S.-trained Cuban exile army that met its fate in that famously botched invasion so many years ago.

“I think we might have been sleepwalking,” said a local anti-Castro organizer who asked to remain anonymous. “But this brave man’s death has changed everything. It reminded all of us what the fight is all about.”

As 2010 continues, the early feelers from Obama will likely diminish with mid-term elections looming and several important races raging in Florida, including one pitting the moderate incumbent Republican Gov. Charlie Crist against Cuban-American firebrand Marco Rubio, a vocal anti-Castro figure and rising star in the GOP ranks. Bottom line: Another false dawn for this tortured relationship.

Michael Moran is Foreign Affairs columnist for GlobalPost, covering global economics, politics and U.S. foreign policy from New York.