Public opinion about Cuba in South Florida has shifted dramatically. Actually, that's an understatement. Let me illustrate the point this way.
In March of 1991, seventy-three percent of Cuban Americans strongly favored tightening the embargo and 62 percent strongly favored assembling an exile army to overthrow Cuba's government by military force.
These results are drawn from the first Florida International University (FIU) survey of Cuban Americans South Florida, the longest-running research project tracking opinion in the exile community. Their hardline views have shaped the debate and politics around U.S. policy toward Cuba for decades.
These days, exiles are not thinking about making sanctions tighter. In FIU's newly-released 2014 poll, fifty-two percent of respondents support ending the embargo altogether, and the survey is no longer even reporting results about toppling Cuba's government by force. Over time, their views have really changed; but, U.S. policy? Not so much.
This year's survey has data on how the community answered over a dozen questions -from the embargo to immigration, to opening relations with Cuba, to voting for or against candidates who want to reform the policy.
The results, sliced and diced by party affiliation, age and other factors, reveal interesting and diverse contours of opinion. What made the biggest impression on us, however, is the movement that took place on three key questions just since the release of FIU's last poll in 2011.
First, on the embargo: In 2011, 44 percent of respondents favored dropping the embargo while 56 percent wanted to keep it. In 2014, a narrow majority, 52 percent, now supports ending the embargo and 48 percent want to keep it, roughly a 15 percent shift in opinion.
Second, on diplomatic relations with Cuba: By 2011, FIU already reported 58 percent support among Cuban Americans for formalizing relations; in 2014, that figure jumps ten points to 68 percent, with only 32 percent opposed.
Last, and possibly most telling, is the shift on travel restrictions. According to FIU, support among Cuban Americans for unrestricted travel by all Americans -- including travel as tourists -- has been above 50 percent for a decade. In the last years, however, support has moved even higher, from 57 percent in 2011 to 69 percent favoring travel for all in 2014.
Why has Florida's Cuban American community, the Number One source of political support for the harshest possible Cuba policy, shifted its views so markedly?
When you consider how our country currently discusses important issues such as climate change or vaccinating children against disease, we are not living in an age of Enlightenment thinking. Much to the frustration of scientists and doctors who know that global warming is real and vaccines are safe, people of all political stripes tend to reach conclusions and stick to them, no matter the facts, often to stay in synch with their peers.
FIU's analysis credits Cubans who arrived from the island after 1995, those more often considered economic rather than political refugees, for shifting the center of gravity in the community. When FIU began incorporating their opinions in the survey, the numbers starting in the year 2000 really moved toward greater openness on Cuba and more flexible policies.
But, we suspect something else is at work. Social scientists now believe that you will measure real movement in people's opinions on difficult public policy issues when they can relate new information about those problems to the most personal and important attributes of their lives.
Under reforms ordered by President Obama in 2009, Cuban Americans can now travel to Cuba as often as they wish to visit and even vacation with their Cuban relatives, something they are doing now in record numbers.
According to recent figures, more than 400,000 Cuban Americans visited their families on the island in 2013. One Miami-based consulting group now projects that a half-million more will take trips to Cuba to see their families in 2014. Many Cuban American travelers return home determined to help their families by delivering more aid and support. They are expressing solidarity with their loved ones breaking with past policies and views based on isolating Cuba.
President Obama policies promoting Cuban American family travel have, we believe, not only helped their kin on the island, but have also created virtual cycles of change at home. Clearly, Secretary Clinton has taken notice. So should the president. With FIU recording majorities in South Florida in favor of dropping the embargo and recognizing Cuba diplomatically, he has created his own political space to speed the process of reform in Washington.
Now that opinion among Cuban Americans, who once offered such strong support for the embargo policies that accomplished so little, has shifted so strongly, what on earth would hold him back now?