Daniela Lorenzo spent most of her life in conservative Miami, where even just talking about traveling to Cuba could earn you a stern word from the city's many Cuban elders. But that didn't stop Lorenzo, who moved from Cuba to Florida when she was 6 years old, from developing a progressive political view of the island nation her family fled.
"We weren't born at a time while Fidel was taking over. We weren't born at a time of the height of his power -- he was on his way out, so we don't really identify with that kind of history," said Lorenzo Wednesday of Fidel Castro, the leader of the 1959 Cuban Revolution. "I think we are more about flexibility, and the embargo didn't allow for that."
Lorenzo is part of a growing fraction of Cubans and Cuban-Americans in the United States who want to see closer ties between their native country and the place they now call home. Their advocacy and involvement in recent years helped create the receptive political climate that saw President Barack Obama announce Wednesday the beginning of the end of economic sanctions against Cuba, more than 50 years after the Cuban embargo began.
In all, more than 68 percent of Cuban-Americans said they supported increased contact between Cuba and the U.S. in a June poll conducted by Florida International University in Miami. Nearly 70 percent of poll respondents also supported the lifting of travel restrictions. Another 71 percent said the embargo was not working at all or not very well.
"I don't think that it has been very productive over the last 50 years. America has relationships with other communist countries, so it doesn't make sense," said Lorenzo, a 20-year-old pre-law student at the University of Miami and vice president of the school's La Federación de Estudiantes Cubanos. Her father is a Republican, but she said she will likely vote as an independent in the next elections.
The FIU poll showed support for the embargo was strongest among Republican voters. The poll surveyed 1,000 randomly selected Cuban-Americans living in Miami-Dade County in South Florida.
"Traditional opinions in Miami about Cuba have changed. There is no question about that," said Sebastián A. Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, which conducted the poll. "The mix of the community has changed. We have more younger people, more people who were born and raised in communist Cuba. ... There has been a concerted effort to influence the U.S. government to change its policy."
But among Miami's traditionally conservative Cuban political elite, Obama's policy change was met with anger, with some lawmakers accusing the administration of rewarding a totalitarian regime known for executions and the imprisonment of its political enemies. Mass protests were expected across Miami's famed Little Havana Cuban enclave Wednesday night, said Republican State Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr., who represents South Florida.
Diaz, who was born in Florida, said his pro-embargo views were shaped by the hardships his parents and grandparents faced in Cuba. "As generations go by, if you don't have a connection, that shapes your opinion," he said. "They gave everything up to flee communism and provide a life of freedom, something that is not readily available in that country, and with some folks there is just a disconnect."
Younger Cuban-Americans and Cuban immigrants who oppose the embargo might not be as informed, he said. "They are being allowed to come here and exercise those freedoms without paying a price, while other generations paid a heavy price for having paved the way for that," Diaz said. "It is very concerning. It is our job as community leaders to inform others and educate them."
Roughly 2 million people who identify as Cuban live in the United States, the fourth-largest population of Hispanics, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2011 American Community Survey. In contrast, Mexicans, the nation’s largest Hispanic group, total roughly 33.5 million. More than half of all Cubans in the U.S. are foreign born, compared with 36 percent of all Hispanics and 13 percent of the nation's overall population.
Cubans tends to be older than other immigrant groups. The median age of Cubans was 40 in 2011, compared with the U.S. median age of 37 and the median age of all Hispanics of 27, according to the Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project. Most Cubans eventually become U.S. citizens.
The earliest waves of Cuban immigrants traditionally registered as Republican and strongly opposed trade with or travel to Cuba. While new Cuban immigrants tend to support more liberal political positions, not as many of them are citizens or vote, said Arcos. "So you have a disconnect from a demographic change and the change in opinions about Cuban policy and how Cubans vote," said Arcos, a human rights activist who moved from Cuba to Miami in 1992. He is strongly pro-embargo after serving time in prison in Cuba for his activism.
Political groups in Miami, such as Cuba Now and Cuban Americans for Engagement, have advocated for a change in U.S.-Cuba policy in recent years. Shifting demographics in Florida, with immigrants from other Latin America nations increasingly supporting Democratic candidates, has also made it safer for politicians to take an anti-embargo stance.
"The long reputation of Miami is that the Cuban vote is key. Florida is a swing state, and I think there are still shadows of this, a knee-jerk among politicians in both parties that seeking the support of the Cuban community, that this was key to winning votes. I think increasingly it has become evident that that is not so much the case anymore," said Michael J. Bustamante, a historian who taught a course on the Cuban Revolution at Yale University in Connecticut and has traveled to Cuba to conduct research. "It sent a signal to the White House that there was space to make this policy."
Obama had previously taken steps toward lifting sanctions against Cuba, including making it easier for Cuban-Americans to send money to and visit relatives on the island. But for years he vowed that he would not dismantle the economic embargo until Havana overhauled its human rights record.
Instead, he announced Wednesday that the U.S. will soon reopen an embassy in Havana and carry out visits between the governments. The U.S. will also ease travel bans to Cuba, but tourist travel will remain banned.
The policy shift will likely spark tense debate between older and younger family members in Miami's Cuban community as it begins to take shape, said Arocs. "There's going to be a lot of heated opinions about this and I can see things getting ugly over the Noche Buena table," he said, referring to the Hispanic celebration of Christmas Eve.