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Republicans Stand Against Cuba Change Despite Public Opinion Shift

A supporter waves a Cuban flag in front of the country's embassy after it reopened for the first time in 54 years on July 20 in Washington, D.C. The embassy was closed in 1961 when U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower severed diplomatic ties with the island nation after Fidel Castro took power in a communist revolution.

The Cuban flag is flying over the Cuban Embassy in the United States for the first time in 54 years after the two countries restored diplomatic relations in December, but not everyone is celebrating the renewed flow of mojitos from the embassy's Hemingway Bar.

Presidential hopefuls Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, who both call the heavily Cuban-American Miami area home, denounced last Monday's new step in U.S.-Cuba relations.

"History will remember July 20, 2015, as Obama's Capitulation Monday, the day two sworn enemies of the United States were able to out-maneuver President Obama to secure historic concessions," Rubio, who is of Cuban heritage, stated, also referencing the U.N. Security Council's endorsement of the Iran deal, which happened last week.

"Monday's events at the U.N., Washington and Havana leave no doubt that we have entered the most dangerous phase of the Obama presidency in which the president is flat out‎ abandoning America's vital national security interests to cozy up to the world's most reprehensible regimes," Rubio said.

Bush has had a noticeably softer tone.

"Better judgment is called for in relations far and near. Ninety miles to the south, there's talk of a state visit by our outgoing president," Bush said when he announced his candidacy. "But we don't need a glorified tourist to go to Havana in support of a failed Cuba. We need an American president to go to Havana in solidarity with a free Cuban people, and I'm ready to be that president."

Bush currently leads Rubio among Cuban-American Republicans by double digits. In a poll published July 18 of registered voters in Miami-Dade County, Bush led Rubio in Cuban-American GOP votes by 12 percentage points, 43 to 31 percent. Ted Cruz, whose father emigrated from Cuba, received 7 percent of support in the polls.

Florida, a swing state, is an important part of any presidential candidate's electoral vote calculus, and Cuban-Americans have long been a powerful group within Florida, especially in Miami-Dade County. The Miami area is home to the largest population of Cuban heritage outside Cuba.

Bush's relative success among Cuban-Americans in the polls with his slightly softer stance reflects a larger trend: Cuban-Americans are not as opposed to normalization as they were in the past.

Once a community known for standing in solidarity in support of the trade embargo, steering U.S. policy toward Cuba, the Cuban-Americans of Miami-Dade are showing rifts in their political views.

In a poll conducted in March, 51 percent of Cuban-Americans approved of Obama's plan to normalize relations with Cuba; 40 percent disapproved. Another poll, conducted in the spring of 2014 by Florida International University pollsters, found that 52 percent of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade favored ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

That's quite different from the past.

In the 1993 version of the same Florida International University poll, 87 percent of Cuban-American respondents in Miami-Dade favored increasing international economic pressure on Cuba, and 80 percent favored having no diplomatic relations with Cuba.

The changing Cuban-American demographic may serve as a window into the group's changing opinions. The number of Cuban-Americans born in Cuba dropped from 68 percent in 2000 to 57 percent in 2013, according to the Pew Research Center.

The decrease in share of the Cuban-born Cuban-American population matters because of the two groups' differing political views: In 2014, 45 percent of those born in Cuba supported normalization, compared with 66 percent of those born in the U.S.

The emerging differences in views among the Cuban-American community may also play a role in Democrats' increasing ability to court its members. While 70 percent of Cuban-Americans polled in Miami-Dade County were registered as Republicans in 1991, that number had fallen to 53 percent by May 2014. Another 25 percent in 2014 were registered as Democrats.

In the months since the Obama administration announced its policy change toward Cuba in December, nearly every GOP presidential candidate has come out with a statement denouncing normalization. Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal and Mike Huckabee have joined Bush and Rubio in denouncing the restoration of full diplomatic ties.

Rand Paul has been the only outlier, a position that caused a scuffle with Rubio earlier this year.

"After 50 years of conflict, why not try a new approach?" Paul wrote in a Dec. 19 Facebook statement. "The United States trades and engages with other communist nations, such as China and Vietnam. Why not Cuba?"

Paul continued his statement to make a dig at Rubio's strong stance against the president's policy.

"Seems to me, Senator Rubio is acting like an isolationist who wants to retreat to our borders and perhaps build a moat. I reject this isolationism," Paul wrote. "Finally, let's be clear that Senator Rubio does not speak for the majority of Cuban-Americans. A recent poll demonstrates that a large majority of Cuban-Americans actually support normalizing relations between our countries."

Rubio replied, "He has no idea what he's talking about," on Fox News' The Kelly File.

Democratic presidential hopefuls have openly praised the president's steps toward normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations.

"As I have said, the best way to bring change to Cuba is to expose its people to the values, information, and material comforts of the outside world," Clinton said when Obama announced his plan on Dec. 17. "The goal of increased U.S. engagement in the days and years ahead should be to encourage real and lasting reforms for the Cuban people. And the other nations of the Americas should join us in this effort."

Sen. Bernie Sanders made similar remarks that same day.

"I applaud the president for beginning discussions to establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba, just like most of the rest of the world. This is a major step forward in ending the 55-year Cold War with Cuba," Sanders said in a statement.

With Cuban-Americans' shifting opinions on normalizing relations, the Democrats' stance might just gain them a few more votes. And the popular Republican opinion may not stand for many more election cycles.

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