By Tom Brown - Analysis
MIAMI (Reuters) - When Democratic presidential front-runner Barack Obama told a Miami gathering he would lift restrictions on travel to communist Cuba by Cuban Americans, he was met with cheers.
Just a few years ago, his comments to the Cuban American National Foundation on Friday might have triggered a riot.
But Miami’s Little Havana, heartland of exile opposition to former Cuban President Fidel Castro since his revolution nearly 50 years ago, has undergone sweeping changes.
Obama and his Republican rival John McCain traveled to Florida this week to woo voters in a state considered critical to winning November’s election.
Just as CANF has changed from a fervently Republican anti-communist pressure group into a non-partisan organization willing to cheer a Democratic hopeful, Miami has evolved beyond the focus on single-issue politics that gave the sultry city a disproportionate influence on U.S. policy toward Cuba.
McCain’s pledge earlier in the week to maintain a tough stance against Cuba -- no detente until Havana frees political prisoners and commits to fair elections -- sounded to many like a worn-out blast from the past.
Younger Cuban Americans and people who have arrived since the 1980 exodus from the Cuban port of Mariel are preoccupied with U.S. domestic issues, such as health care and real estate woes, and not with wishing for an end to the Castro government in Cuba, analysts say.
“Younger Cuban exiles, and of course those that came after Mariel, don’t have the extreme position, the hardline position that their predecessors had,” said Fernand Amandi of Bendixen & Associates, a Miami-based public-opinion research firm that has conducted extensive studies of the Cuban-American community.
The United States has maintained an embargo against Cuba for almost half a century and McCain vowed this week to enforce it strictly until Cuba’s government releases political prisoners, grants basic freedoms and schedules internationally monitored elections -- whenever that might be.
At a town hall meeting on Monday, McCain drew loud jeers from a staunchly Republican crowd when he said that Obama would “sit down unconditionally for a presidential meeting with Raul Castro -- an unconditional meeting.”
In response, however, Obama said talks he has suggested might occur with Cuba’s new leader, Raul Castro, who took over from his brother Fidel Castro this year, would only involve the tough but direct diplomacy he has said he might engage in with other problem nations.
“I know what the easy thing to do is for American politicians when he or she comes down to Miami. Every four years they come down, they talk tough and then they go back to Washington and nothing changes in Cuba,” he said on Friday.
“That’s what John McCain did the other day. He joined the parade of politicians who make the same empty promises year after year, decade after decade.”
His stance might just strike a chord.
According to Bendixen & Associates, 72 percent of Cuban Americans questioned answered “yes” in a survey two years ago when asked if they would favor U.S. negotiations with a new Cuban government that showed an interest in an improvement in relations with the Cuban exile community.
“He (McCain) is getting bad advice,” said Joe Garcia, a Democrat and Cuban-American community leader who is trying to unseat one of Miami’s dominant conservative Republican congressmen in November’s general election.
Even some older exiles among the 650,000 Cubans in Miami are now calling for a change in tactics.
Jose Basulto, a veteran of the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, said he supports McCain but also thinks it “immoral” to maintain the restrictions separating exiles from the people of Cuba and their families.
“The U.S. is using the victims to chastise the victimizers,” said Basulto, leader of Brothers to the Rescue, which once flew planes over the Florida Straits looking for rafters while promoting non-violent opposition to Castro.
Cuban Americans have long enjoyed enviable political clout in Washington. But that too could change as an influx of Colombians, Venezuelans and other emigres erode their longstanding dominance of the Hispanic vote in Florida.
Cuban Americans now account for just 45 percent of Florida’s Hispanic vote, according to Bendixen & Associates, down from 90 percent in 1988.
Additional reporting by Jim Loney, Editing by Michael Christie and Eric Beech