This week President Obama made history by redefining U.S. relations with Cuba, which have been plagued for over half a century by isolation and confrontation. The announcement revealed that for 18 months the White House was involved in secret negotiations with the Castro government, hosted by Canada and with a prominent role by the Holy See. While no single entity can take credit for making this week’s historic announcement a reality, Cuban Americans in South Florida have played a key role that ought not be overlooked.

Once a reliable block in favor of U.S. sanctions, Cuban American have been showing signs of shifting attitudes for some time.  Polling in South Florida beginning in 2000 demystified the notion of a monolithic Miami. Proponents of U.S. sanctions responded angrily, organizing marches, railing on local radio and attacking the organizers of polls monitoring the change underway. In time, Cuban-Americans cast off the fears that once stopped them from voicing their support for alternative policies. Despite attacks from hardliners, Cuban-Americans found solace as more voices in the community embraced the words of Pope John Paul II, which urged Cuba to open up to the world and the world to open up to Cuba. 

As Cuban-Americans increasingly called for change in U.S. policy, politicians began to publicly embrace these ideas. By the time Senator Barack Obama visited Miami during the 2008 during presidential campaign, he comfortably announced in a ballroom of Cuban Americans that: “it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions.” A year later, President Obama made good on his campaign promise to liberalize family travel and remittances, thus reversing the restrictive policies implemented by his predecessors that had appeased a shrinking minority of vocal hardliners and only served to divide Cuban families.

Attitudes in the Cuban American community continued to evolve as thousands of its members began to travel to the island, many for the first time in half a century, under the Obama’s modified rules. When President Obama was re-elected in 2012, he enjoyed the support of a majority of the Cuban-American vote—a first for a Democrat.  That same year, the hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans traveling to the island outnumbered the total number of votes cast in support of all three Cuban-American congressional representatives from south Florida combined, all of whom continue to support the embargo.

The Cuban American community—once the single greatest obstacle to change in U.S. policy towards Cuba—has already begun the normalization and reconciliation that it has help inspire in U.S. policy.  While a small group of entrenched defenders of U.S. sanctions cling to the failed policies of the past, the U.S. and Cuba began a new chapter in their relationship this week. With the bold steps taken by President Obama, now more Americans—Cuban and otherwise—can now join in this process of normalization.

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