The US government's hardline attitude toward Cuba has spanned more than half a century, far outlasting the end of the Cold War. It has persisted even though there's plenty of evidence that it's a terrible idea.
This is partly because the politics of the embargo in the US have long been dominated by a certain generation of politically influential Cuban emigrants, who fled the country to escape the Fidel Castro regime and passionately feel the US shouldn't do anything that might legitimize the Cuban government.
For this reason, there has historically been no upside — and plenty of downside — for a politician to take a softer line toward Cuba. But in the last couple of decades, it's become clear that the politics aren't as one-sided as they once were. The Cuban-American political establishment hasn't moderated its position on the issue, but it no longer speaks for Cuban Americans (not to mention Florida's Latinos) as a whole.
On Wednesday, the Obama administration announced that it's reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, and relaxing restrictions on travel and trade. This isn't politically toxic anymore, and demographic changes are largely to thank.
1) Newer Cuban emigrants are here for economic reasons, not political ones
The US allows virtually any emigrant from Cuba who sets foot on American soil to stay legally in the United States — and makes it easier for them to get green cards. So Cubans have continued to arrive in the United States in large numbers. More than a third of all Cuban Americans living in Miami in 2014 had arrived in the last twenty years.
The older generation of Cuban Americans primarily think of themselves as political refugees. Fleeing the oppressive Castro regime came first, and settling in the US came second. The newer emigrants are more likely to come to the US for economic opportunity.
Many of them travel to Cuba as frequently as they're allowed to under current US policy. They're also more favorable to Cuba in their politics. As Anya Landau French wrote for the Atlantic in 2011:
As a different sort of Cuban emigre — economic rather than political, traveling back and forth between the two countries rather than permanently exiled in the U.S. — becomes more numerous in the U.S., they are asking for a different sort of U.S. policy toward Cuba, one at odds with the old ways. This growing, more moderate cohort of Cuban Americans who want to travel to and invest in the island could mean that the hardline exiles' influence on U.S. Cuba policy might be waning.
Poll results bear this out. A Florida International University poll of Cuban Americans in Miami this summer found that a majority of Cuban Americans actually supported ending the embargo — and those who'd arrived since 1995 were the most likely to call for the embargo's end, with 90 percent of them showing support for normalizing relations.
The flip side of this warmer attitude toward Cuba amongst recent emigrants is that they're also less likely to pursue citizenship in the US.. According to the FIU poll, Cubans who'd arrived in the US since 1995 were the least likely to register to vote. But other trends have changed not just the Cuban American population, but the electorate.
2) The children of Cuban emigres aren't as hardline as their parents
Matt Barreto of the polling firm Latino Decisions wrote in 2012 that there are actually three different Latino electorates in Florida. One is the non-Cuban electorate; another is the older, hardline anti-Castro Cuban vote. But the third voting bloc is made up of younger, US-born Cuban-Americans — the children of the hardliners — who are in every way more moderate than their parents.
This moderation starts with their feelings about the embargo and US-Cuba relations: another Miami poll from this summer, conducted by polling firm Bendixen and Amandi, showed that 61 percent of Cuban-born Miamians supported the embargo; only 43 percent of US-born Cubans did. But the difference is broader than that. The older generation of Cuban emigrant voters in Florida — anti-communist and supportive of a hawkish foreign policy — have long been reliable Republicans. But their children are more favorable to the Democratic Party.
In January 2012, according to the Latino Decisions poll, a net 61 percent of Cuban-born voters said they'd be more likely to vote for the Republican nominee for president if he picked Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) as his running mate. A net 15 percent of US-born Cubans said they'd be more likely to do so. That's shifted the Cuban-American vote as a whole: in 2013, for the first time, the Pew Research Center found that less than half (47 percent) of all Cuban-American voters said they identified with the Republican Party.
The broader shift has had a big effect on the politics of the embargo. Not only has it become increasingly true that the "Cuban vote" isn't universally pro-embargo, it's also become increasingly true that there is no longer one unified "Cuban vote" that politicians can court to begin with, thus diluting the influence of the anti-Castro establishment even further.
3) There's more to the Latino vote in Florida than the Cuban vote
In fact, younger and more moderate Cubans in Florida are more similar, politically, to the other Floridian Latino electorate identified by Barreto: non-Cubans, particularly Puerto Ricans, living in central Florida. These voters lean Democratic, and are liberal on the issues. And they have no reason to support the embargo at all.
Slowly, Cubans are becoming less dominant among Florida's Latinos than they used to be. In 2000, the Cuban population of Florida represented 31 percent of its Latino population; in 2010, that had fallen to 28.7 percent. This is important because so much of the Cuban American population is Floridian — in 2010, two-thirds of all Cuban Americans lived in the state. The Cuban population in Florida lost footing among the Latino population despite growing over the last decade — and all of that growth came from recent emigrants or native-born citizens, both of whom are liberal on the embargo. That's a serious hit to the power of the Cuban-American establishment.
As the "Latino vote" in Florida has come to mean more than the Cuban vote, and has started to resemble the Latino vote in the rest of the country, politicians in Florida are able to connect with the more liberal Cuban Americans by reaching out, more broadly, to Latinos.
That's left the old Cuban-American establishment with nowhere to go. And a more tolerant, more Latino Cuban-American population is rising instead.