President Barack Obama’s decision to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba sparked a firestorm of protest among Florida Republicans and caution among Democrats, proving that the future of America’s dealings with the island nation 90 miles away remains a sensitive issue in the state.
In a noontime speech Wednesday from the White House, Obama told the nation that he had decided to normalize the United States’ relationship with Cuba after the release of Alan Gross, an American who had been held prisoner on the island for five years. While the U.S. and Cuba traded the freedom of some intelligence agents as part of the multi-pronged deal announced Wednesday, administration officials said Gross’ release was done separately on humanitarian grounds.
Obama stressed in his remarks that the U.S. would still pressure Cuba, ruled by President Raul Castro, to improve its record on democracy and human rights.
“But I believe that we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement,” he said. “After all, these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach.”
While Obama’s actions would ease some economic and travel restrictions toward Cuba, they would not end the U.S. embargo on the island.
It was hard to tell immediately how the surprising decision might play in Florida, where Cuban-Americans remain a vitally important voting bloc. Once staunchly Republican, refugees from the island and their descendants have recently begun to more evenly split their ballots between the GOP and Democrats.
Nonetheless, the state’s Republican politicians — and particularly those of Cuban descent — tore into the president’s announcement.
“It is a victory for the oppressive Cuban government, but a serious setback for the repressed Cuban people,” said U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., at a press conference in Washington, D.C. “The White House has conceded everything and gained little.”
Rubio, considered a possible contender for his party’s presidential nomination in 2016, said he would look at ways to try to block Obama’s actions as he took over chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican who has begun to formally explore a bid for the presidency, also knocked the move.
“The Obama administration’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba is the latest foreign policy misstep by this president, and another dramatic overreach of his executive authority,” Bush said in a post to his Facebook page. “It undermines America’s credibility and undermines the quest for a free and democratic Cuba.”
Gov. Rick Scott and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, believed to be the first Latino to hold that position, also joined in.
“I am relieved for Alan Gross and his family,” Lopez-Cantera said. “However, Cuba has a brutal dictatorship and the Obama administration’s actions only legitimize their oppressive behavior and make it harder for the people of Cuba who are fighting for democracy.”
Some Cuban-Americans, though, painted their opposition less in terms of ties to the island and more in terms of what it said about the nation they now call home.
“I’m really insulted, and not because my parents were political exiles, and not because I come from a long line of family (members) that fled the island, but as an American, as an American who values freedom and who values all our principles and what this country was founded on,” Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, said.
Even some Democrats were cautious.
“The Cuban regime continues to brutally imprison political dissidents, block access to the Internet and the free flow of information, and deny the people of Cuba free and fair elections,” said Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch, who holds a South Florida seat. “As Congress reviews the president’s proposals in the weeks and months ahead, I will do everything I can to make sure these critical human-rights issues remain front and center in this debate.”
Some Democrats, though, were more supportive of the president.
“As Americans, we fought two wars with Germany, experienced a terrible conflict with Vietnam and have been able to move forward each time based on concerns for the people of those countries,” said Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor, who represents a Tampa Bay-area district. “It is long past time that we do the same for the people of Cuba.”
A senior administration official, speaking to reporters on a conference call ahead of Obama’s remarks, noted that attitudes among some Cuban-Americans about the U.S. approach to the island are changing.
“The Cuban-American population, particularly younger generations of Cuban-Americans have increasingly supported greater openness,” the official said. ” … There’s been a continued evolution of public opinion, of opinion in the Cuban-American community.”
State Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Cuban-American Democrat from Miami seen as one of the rising stars in his party, said the objective was getting democracy for Cuba.
“U.S. policy toward Cuba hasn’t achieved that in 50 years,” he said, before saying he would have preferred a more deliberative approach. “It really feels rushed. A lot is happening very quickly.”
He pointed to the likelihood that a Cuban embassy would soon be set up in Washington.
“What does the cause of (Cuban) liberty get in return for that?” Rodriguez asked.
-Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida