When Hillary Clinton went to the heart of Miami's Little Havana on Monday and called on Congress to lift the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, she became the first leading presidential contender to suggest reversing the 53-year-old policy.
But with President Obama already leading the drive toward normalization, her remarks say more about the rapidly changing political landscape of the country's largest swing state than they do about American foreign policy.
Such a direct challenge to the hard-line, pro-embargo orthodoxy that has long defined Cuban-American politics in Florida would have been unimaginable just seven years ago, when Clinton made her first bid for president and backed the economic sanctions.
Even Obama, who campaigned in 2008 on lifting restrictions on travel and sending money to relatives on the island, made clear that he would not get rid of the embargo. "Don't be confused about this," he told the Cuban American National Foundation as he outlined his proposals that year. "I will maintain the embargo."
Once a Republican monolith in Florida, the Cuban-American vote is undergoing a generational shift. Cuban exiles that arrived in the decade-and-a-half following Cuba's 1959 revolution have been dying off while their children and fresh waves of immigrants hold a different view of Cuba. Polls of the community show a tilt toward engagement, with the most recent survey by Florida International University finding Cuban-Americans in Miami split over the embargo, which was a near-record, and 71 percent saying it either had not worked very well or at all.
Even some of South Florida's most prominent Cuban-American business leaders, long among the most strident defenders of the embargo, favor lifting the sanctions and publicly talk about investing in Cuba. Among them is Mike Fernandez, a health care mogul and the single largest donor to Jeb Bush's super PAC.
At the same time, a huge influx of Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and people from Central and South America have diluted Cuban-American political clout in Florida. In the 2012 election, 42 percent of Hispanic voters in the state were Cuban, an 11-point drop from 2000, according to the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey.
Nevertheless, Clinton's strategy carries significant political risk, something that her GOP rivals are banking on. While declining in numbers, older Cuban exiles are among the most reliable Republican voters in Florida; younger Cuban-Americans and newer arrivals tend to identify as Democrats but have lower citizenship and voter-registration rates.
Florida Republicans also note that the state's top elected officials — including Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, head of the Democratic National Committee — still back the embargo and oppose Obama's policy. And they say Clinton already has a test case for her gamble: Charlie Crist. The former Republican governor ran as a Democrat last year on an anti-embargo platform and lost. He often emphasized the potential commercial opportunities for American businesses, an approach that some of his Cuban-American supporters said angered voters who felt it diminished the Castro regime's human-rights violations.
On Friday, Bush called Clinton's appearance in Miami and her proposals "insulting" to Cuban exiles. Sen. Marco Rubio said the Democrat's plans would be "another grave mistake," adding that "President Obama and Secretary Clinton must learn that appeasement only embodies dictators and repressive governments."
In her speech, Clinton tread lightly, acknowledging the emotionally charged nature of the debate and vowing never to forget the painful experiences of Cuban exiles who fled the communist island, a journey that separated many of them from their families, friends, homes, and businesses. Highlighting changing attitudes, she singled out Miriam Leiva, a prominent anti-Castro activist who attended her speech.
"I understand the skepticism in this community about any policy of engagement toward Cuba. As many of you know, I've been skeptical too," she said. "But you've been promised progress for 50 years. And we can't wait any longer for a failed policy to bear fruit."
Clinton detailed her conversion, saying that while she supported her husband's actions as president to strengthen the embargo, as secretary of State she came to see it as a tool that Fidel and Raul Castro used to strengthen themselves and dilute American influence in the region.
"The Castros were able to blame all of the island's woes on the U.S. embargo, distracting from the regime's failures and delaying their day of reckoning with the Cuban people," she said.
But she said small changes by the Obama administration — loosening restrictions on travel and cash remittances — gave Cubans "a taste of a different future." The embargo, she said, must fall to foster that progress. In remarks clearly aimed at Bush and Rubio — two of the most vociferous supporters of the embargo — Clinton said her Republican rivals see the issue "through an outdated Cold War lens."
"Instead of opportunities to be seized, they see only threats to be feared," she said. "They refuse to learn the lessons of the past or pay attention to what's worked and what hasn't. For them, ideology trumps evidence. And so they remain incapable of moving us forward."
If Congress refuses to lift the embargo — a likely outcome if Republicans retain control after 2016 — Clinton vowed to use her executive authority as president to make it easier for more Americans to visit Cuba while bolstering diplomatic ties with Cuban business owners and activists. At the same time, she pledged to maintain sanctions on human-rights violators and to "keep pressing for a just settlement" on property expropriated by the Cuban government.
In the end, she assured Miami's Cuban-Americans that they would play a prominent role.
"No one is better positioned to bring expertise, resources, and vision to this effort," she said, "and no one understands better how transformative this can be."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
Michael J. Mishak is a political correspondent covering the 2016 presidential campaign for National Journal. Previously, he was a national political writer for The Associated Press in Miami, where his coverage of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio won state and regional awards. He also covered Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Legislature for the Los Angeles Times and politics and labor for the Las Vegas Sun, where he contributed to a Pulitzer Prize-winning series about construction worker deaths on the Strip. A Philadelphia native, Mishak cut his political teeth reporting on his hometown's mayoral race in 2003, which played out amid a federal corruption probe and the attempted firebombing of a candidate's office.