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Obama Reignites Cuba Political Debate  12/18 06:31

   The surprising move by President Barack Obama to restore U.S. ties with Cuba 
reignited long-simmering political passions over the fate of the island nation, 
reinforcing yet another difference between Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and 
several Republicans eyeing bids for the White House.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- The surprising move by President Barack Obama to restore 
U.S. ties with Cuba reignited long-simmering political passions over the fate 
of the island nation, reinforcing yet another difference between Democrat 
Hillary Rodham Clinton and several Republicans eyeing bids for the White House.

   Yet even in Florida, the nation's most essential swing state, those 
distinctions may not matter as much as they once did amid an increasingly 
diverse electorate of Hispanic voters and younger Cuban-Americans, many of whom 
do not share the same fervor to depose Cuba's Castro brothers as their parents 
and grandparents.

   "If you're a third-generation Cuban, in your mid-30s, went to college here 
... things that define your worldview are not Cuban embargo politics," said 
Steve Schale, a Florida-based Democratic strategist who led Obama's state 
effort in 2012.

   Among potential Republican presidential candidates, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio 
led the attack Wednesday on Obama's plans to ease of economic and travel 
restrictions on Cuba, to open an embassy in Havana and to review the communist 
nation's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. Rubio and others called 
the decision an appeasement of the Castro regime and criticized the release of 
Cuban spies as part of the deal.

   "When America is unwilling to advocate for individual liberty and freedom of 
political expression 90 miles from our shores, it represents a terrible setback 
for the hopes of all oppressed people around the globe," said Rubio, the son of 
Cuban exiles.

   Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who announced plans this week to "actively 
explore" running for president and recently reaffirmed his support for the U.S. 
trade embargo against Cuba, said Obama's decision undermined efforts to create 
a free and Democratic Cuba. He accused Obama of effectively rewarding dictators 
"with a disastrous human rights record."

   Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said Cuba had not made enough internal changes 
to warrant the U.S. policy shift, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said the Obama 
administration was "being played by brutal dictators whose only goal is 
maintaining power."

   Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the GOP's presidential nominee in 2008 
and a possible candidate in 2016, respectively, suggested Obama's actions could 
affect relations with Iran and were a harbinger of a more "damaging chapter to 
America's national security" to come.

   Such strident opposition to any deal with the Castro regime fits with 
decades of Republican politics and efforts to build a loyal following among 
Cuban exiles in South Florida. But there were some breaks with the hard line 
taken by most in the party.

   The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an important lobby that usually backs 
Republican candidates for office, said the steps would help "free enterprise to 
flourish." The American Farm Bureau Federation, another loyal GOP group, also 
supported Obama's actions.

   Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, who flew from Cuba with Alan Gross, an 
American held in Cuba for five years who was released Wednesday, said, "The 
policy we've had in the last 50 years has done more to keep the Castros in 

   Support for that policy helped Ronald Reagan during the 1980s and propelled 
George H.W. Bush to victories in Florida in 1988 and 1992. In 2000, George W. 
Bush defeated Al Gore in Florida following a 36-day recount in a race that 
pivoted in part on outrage over the Elian Gonzalez custody battle.

   But Obama won Florida in both of his campaigns, helped in part by shifting 
demographics in the state and an influx of Puerto Ricans in central Florida. 
The president also made inroads with Cuban-Americans, with exit polls in 2012 
showing Obama winning nearly half of the Cuban-American vote, the most by any 
Democratic presidential candidate.

   A Pew Research Center analysis of 2013 survey data found that less than half 
of registered Cuban-American voters lean Republican, compared with 64 percent a 
decade ago. During the same time period, the share of Cubans who support 
Democrats has doubled from 22 percent to 44 percent.

   Clinton, the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination should she run 
again, backed Obama's policy in a statement late Wednesday, saying that 
"despite good intentions, our decades-long policy of isolation has only 
strengthened the Castro regime's grip on power." She said the best way to 
change Cuba "is to expose its people to the values, information and material 
comforts of the outside world."

   Clinton had previously called the embargo a failure, writing in her most 
recent memoir it gives the Castro regime "a foil to blame for Cuba's economic 

   A potential Democratic presidential rival, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, 
echoed those views, saying via Twitter on Wednesday it was "time to reset our 
Cuba policy."

   Despite the changes in Florida, it is still home to about 70 percent of the 
nation's 2 million Cuban-Americans. Former Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, who fled 
Cuba as a teenager and became the nation's first Cuban-American senator, 
predicted the issue would energize the Cuban-American community --- even the 
more recent generations who grew up in Florida.

   "She better hope that they execute this properly," Martinez said of Clinton, 
"or she'll be sorry that she took that position."


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