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Cuba poll reflects changing political landscape in Florida

A new poll indicating the majority of Floridians favor a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba comes as the issue of isolation of Cuba versus engagement is being hotly debated in the Cuban-American community.

For decades after the Cuban revolution, Cuba and the United States were the most distant of neighbors. Cuba restricted travel by requiring a reviled tarjeta blanca, or exit visa, and the U.S. embargo restricted not only trade but kept nearly all Americans from traveling to the island and spending money.

Now with changes in both U.S. and Cuban policy, travel between the United States and Cuba has hit record levels. An estimated 600,000 Cuban-Americans and other Americans on so-called people-to-people trips visited the island last year, and more Cubans, including dissidents of various political stripes, also have made trips to South Florida since Cuba changed its travel rules a year ago.

For many Cuban-Americans, the question of Cuba has become a balancing act as they weigh how to help the Cuban people against their own desire not to do anything that would prolong the Castro government.

And politically, the perception has been that maintaining a hard-line on Cuba and keeping the trade embargo against the island in place equals political support and campaign contributions in Florida.

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But a poll released by the Atlantic Council late Monday shows that 64 percent of residents in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties favor normalization of relations with Cuba or more direct engagement.

In a smaller sampling, which means there could be a larger percentage of error, those of Cuban descent were more heavily in favor of normalization or engagement: 79-21 percent in Florida and 73-26 percent nationwide.

When it came to removing all prohibitions on travel to Cuba, 67 percent of Floridians were in favor, according to the poll.

“The more familiar people become with what’s going on in Cuba, the more supportive they become of a change in Cuba policy,” said Carlos Saladrigas, a successful Cuban-American entrepreneur. “When they travel, they come back with a renewed focus on helping the Cuban people and not being so obsessed with hurting the Castro government.”

In recent days, the question of the embargo has been at the forefront of political debate in Florida with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist saying that after more than five decades, the embargo has not produced the desired effect and should be lifted. Republican Gov. Rick Scott has responded that the embargo should stay in place because keeping it supports the Cuban people.

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But Pepe Hernández, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, suggests it might be better to keep the dialogue on the future of Cuba outside Florida political circles.

“We need to resolve the Cuban problem in Cuba,” he said. “We can’t resolve it in South Florida and that’s what we’ve tried to do for years.”

For many years, CANF stridently advocated the isolation of Cuba and it still opposes lifting the embargo. But the exile organization has modified its position to supporting expanded travel to Cuba “as long as it has a purpose” and is not disguised as tourism, said CANF’s Hernández.

As more Cuban-Americans make the trip to their homeland, some attitudes are shifting.

As a young man, sugar tycoon Alfonso Fanjul saw his family’s Cuban sugar holdings taken over by the Cuban government and he was a major funder of the anti-Castro movement.

But he told The Washington Post that he has started to visit the island, talked with top Cuban officials and would consider investing in Cuba — if there are political and diplomatic advances.

Battle lines were quickly drawn in the Cuban-American community over Fanjul’s comments with some blasting him while others congratulated him for his stand.

“At a time when the democracy activists on the island are facing even harsher reprisals from the brutal Cuban regime, it’s pathetic that a Cuban-American tycoon feels inspired to trample on the backs of those activists in order to give the communist thugs more money with which to repress,” said Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

But Fanjul joins a growing vanguard of wealthy Cuban-Americans who say they are now open to exploring alternatives to hard-line policy and isolation of Cuba.

“It is the Cuban people who need the help,” Hernández said.

The Cuba Study Group, whose members include heavy hitters such as Saladrigas and former ambassador and business executive Paul Cejas, commended Fanjul for his leadership in showing Cuban-Americans that they need to be prepared to play a “constructive role” in Cuba’s future.

“We also welcome the fact that Mr. Fanjul has ignited an important, timely, and critical debate within the Cuban-American community,’’ the Cuba Study Group, which opposes the embargo, said in a statement.

After criticizing Crist for flip-flopping on the embargo, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said his own “interests in Cuba are about the freedom and liberty of the Cuban people.”

“I wish he’d make that a priority,” the senator said of Crist.

Crist says lifting the embargo would help Florida businesses and create more jobs.

But CANF’s Hernández disagrees: “Doing it now would hurt the Florida economy. The embargo must remain in place until the time when lifting it truly helps the Cuban people. That time will come.”

Private property must be secure, Cuban workers must be able to negotiate their own salaries, labor productivity must increase and other conditions must be met before eliminating the embargo would have the desired effect, Hernández said.

The Atlantic Council poll shows that 57 percent of Floridians either find the adverse economic impact of the embargo very important or somewhat important as a reason to support normalization of relations with Cuba.

For more than 50 years, the embargo has been the linchpin of the U.S.-Cuba relationship.

First imposed in October 1960 as a partial embargo, it was gradually tightened to include all trade with Cuba. But it has been modified to allow the shipment of agricultural products and food, medical supplies and medicine and other humanitarian supplies. Publications, works of art and other informational materials also are exempt from the embargo.

“The embargo can’t be eliminated unless Congress acts, but the president has discretion to modify it,” said Phil Peters, president of the Cuba Research Center in Alexandria, Va.

The president, for example, could expand travel to the island to new categories of Americans.

The president also could authorize new areas of trade that might be added to the current exemptions for food and other products, added Peters.

But lifting the embargo with the 1996 Helms Burton Act in place will be far more difficult. Even if there were the necessary votes in Congress, the Helms Burton Act stipulates certain conditions must be met before the embargo can be lifted.

Among them are the requirement that neither Fidel nor Raúl Castro be in power, the legalization of opposition political parties and an independent media, dismantling of the State Security apparatus and the commitment to hold free, fair and internationally supervised elections within 18 months after a transitional government assumes power.

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