MIAMI — The door for travel to Cuba cracked open during President Obama's first term.
Cuban-Americans can now visit family on the island as often as they like. Americans can travel legally as part of an academic or religious trip.
Perhaps it's for this reason that Obama's standing with the Cuban-American community in Florida stayed largely steady on Election Day, even though the modest openings with Cuba have riled some of South Florida's more conservative exiles. Exit polling showed that 49 percent of Cuban-Americans voted for the Democrat, roughly the same percentage as four years ago.
At the same time, Florida voters sent to the House a Cuban-American Democrat from Miami who supports Obama's expansion of travel and remittances to Cuba while still favoring the 50-year-old embargo that limits American trade with the communist country. Joe Garcia defeated Republican Rep. David Rivera, who was implicated in a campaign finance scandal and had supported a traditional, isolationist stance toward Cuba.
The victories by supporters of looser restrictions on Cuba travel illustrate changing attitudes of Americans who hail from the island nation: They seem to be less resistant to politicians who promote travel to Cuba and more focused on more traditional American concerns such as the economy, rather than Cuba policy. Those shifting attitudes could have implications for U.S. policy toward Cuba in the next four years, as well as how presidential candidates and politicians approach Cuban-Americans in Florida, an important swing state, in the future.
There are plenty of other impediments, chiefly the continued detention of U.S. contractor Alan Gross by the Cuban government, which could delay a further easing of restrictions with Cuba. Gross was arrested in 2009 while working as part of a democracy-building program; he's now serving a 15-year prison term for bringing restricted communications equipment into Cuba.
But analysts argue that the political environment is ripe for reducing restrictions on the Cuba travel policy, and they point to both the election outcome and changes on Capitol Hill among Florida's Cuban-American delegation.
“The fact the president did extremely well among Cuban-Americans in the election ... should give him a good indication that the Cuban-American community supports the type of measures that he's enacted and would like to see additional steps taken,” said Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the nonpartisan Cuba Study Group. He served in former President George W. Bush's administration in the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Polling suggests that the Cuban-American community is less supportive of continuing an isolationist policy with Cuba. Florida International University's most recent poll of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County, done in 2011, found that 44 percent opposed continuing the embargo and 53 percent said it had not worked at all.
At the same time, Florida's Cuban-American legislative delegation, which has taken a hard-line approach against easing travel restrictions, is changing.
Analysts point to two developments in particular: the election of Garcia, who served in the Obama administration as the Energy Department's director of the Office of Minority Economic Impact, as well as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., a Cuban-American who has strongly supported a tough Cuba policy, finishing her term as head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Julia Sweig, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Garcia's election in particular will strengthen the view in Washington that the potential political risk of easing economic penalties against Cuba “has been diminished substantially, if it ever existed.”
Another factor that could influence Cuba policy is the emergence of leaders such as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a Cuban-American who has objected to Obama's Cuba travel expansion. Rubio has said he will not support lifting the embargo until the Castro brothers —retired leader Fidel and current President Raul — are gone, and Cuba releases all political prisoners and respects basic civil rights.
“Every U.S.-Cuba policy decision should be guided by the simple test of whether it helps free political prisoners, stops the daily repression and paves the way for the people to express their will through free and fair elections,” Rubio said.
Tim Ashby, a former Commerce Department official and lawyer who counsels companies on Cuba law and trade, predicts that Republican Cuban-American legislators who argue against easing travel restrictions may change their tune if the politics favor Democrats. Of Rubio, he said: “If he sees the younger Cuban-Americans moving toward the Democrats he may adopt a different approach.”
Omar Lopez, human rights director of the Cuban American National Foundation, said he believes Cuban-Americans are more in favor of traveling to Cuba, but he added, that doesn't mean they're ready for a full opening with the government.
“People believe there is a dictatorship in Cuba, it should be gone, and Cuba should be democratic,” Lopez said. “That is the main consensus of the community."