Fifty years ago, when Cubans left their homes for America to escape the oppressive Castro regime, they were exiles. They rallied against the dictatorship, supported the U.S. embargo on the island, and overwhelmingly favored a tough American stance toward the country.
But newer arrivals from Cuba have much softer views on Cuban-American relations, a generational divide put into stark relief Wednesday morning with the release of Alan Gross, an American imprisoned in Cuba since 2009, and a subsequent move by the White House toward normalizing diplomatic ties. And it's a divide that has the potential to transform Florida politics.
"Over a third of Cubans that live in Miami right now came after 1995," Guillermo Grenier, a Florida International University sociology professor who surveys Cuban-American attitudes, told National Journal. "These are the folks that have direct and lasting contacts with the island, and with people on the island. They're not in any way exiles in the typical sense of the word. They've come for a variety of reasons; sometimes they don't like the politics, but most times they don't like the economic situation. They don't have much in common with the earlier group of Cubans."
According to a FIU Cuban Research Institute poll this year, 88 percent of Cuban-Americans aged 18-29 in Miami-Dade County favor diplomatic relations with Cuba. That number declines with age, with only 41 percent of those 65 and older favoring relations.
In Florida, the Cuban-American vote is vital for politicians' hopes, both within the state and nationwide. Older Cubans who came to the U.S. in the years immediately after the country's 1959 revolution tend to stick to a harder line, Grenier said—and on the whole, they're the ones who go to the polls. But as the younger generation gets older, it'll make more of a difference in elections. Democrats are counting on that, Grenier said, as an opportunity for the party to capitalize on the younger generation's different beliefs.
"They will start pointing to the changing population in Dade county, not the old guard which supports a harder line," he said. "They'll be pointing to a new guard that perhaps they aren't all registered to vote, but it might inspire them to, or it might inspire a registration drive by the Democrats."
More than half of younger Cuban-Americans already lean Democrat, according to Pew Research Center data. Only 39 percent of those over 50 lean Democrat, though that number has increased in the last 10 years. Among a community that already supports normalizing relations, Democrats could use Wednesday's historic announcement as a way to rally the younger generation of Cubans, who don't currently vote in high numbers, to the polls.
In his address announcing the policy change Wednesday, President Obama noted those shifting attitudes.
"Neither the American nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born," he said, explaining his rationale behind normalizing relations. "A younger generation of Cuban-Americans has increasingly questioned an approach that does more to keep Cuba closed off from an interconnected world."
As expected, many Republicans stuck to a tough line against Cuba after the administration's announcement. Florida-based GOP media consultant Rick Wilson told National Journal that the policy change won't go over well in the state, because it won't alter the reality on the ground in Cuba.
"If you're gay in Cuba, you're still going to be put in prison," he said. "If you are an observant Catholic or Jew in Cuba, you have a good chance of being put in prison if you speak out. If you're a political dissident in Cuba, you have a good chance of being put in prison or killed. The shiny things that we say at the State Department and the White House today about a new generation of U.S.-Cuba relations will always come up against the reality that the Castro brothers are still a pair of authoritarian thugs, and they still run that island with an iron fist."
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban-American and possible presidential contender, also criticized the move, calling the thaw in relations a "lifeline" for the Castro regime. And in a press conference after Obama's address, he slammed Obama as being "willfully ignorant of the way the world works."
Nevertheless, the stark divide between old and young—and now, Republicans and Democrats—shows just how much it will affect Florida's political future.