Carl P. Leubsdorf: Same Marines, but everything else in the Cuba has changed

The past met the future this week, when three aging Marines watched the raising of the American flag over the U.S. Embassy in Havana, where they had lowered it about 54 years ago.

On the surface, it seemed nothing had changed: a Castro still heads the Communist government just 90 miles offshore, dissidents still are muzzled or jailed. On the U.S. side of the watery divide, elderly Cuban refugees in South Florida still protest President Barack Obama's decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, demanding compensation for their seized properties.

In fact, however, everything has changed.

Cuba, from which Russia once threatened to launch missiles against the United States, is no longer a danger, either to this country or others in the Western Hemisphere. While political opposition remains illegal and dissent is disallowed, decades of economic stagnation forced Cuba's Communist leaders to allow the return of some private entrepreneurship, and burgeoning travel and communications are giving Cubans a larger window into the outside world.

And in this country, attitudes toward Cuba have mellowed, even in Florida. That makes Republican voices such as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush — who denounced the Obama initiative and vowed to reverse it — as anachronistic as the elderly Castro brothers, President Raul Castro, 84, and his brother Fidel, 89, ailing and retired.


Indeed, when leaders of all political stripes seek ways to strengthen the American economy, it seems counterproductive for Congress to cling to an economic embargo that harms the American economy and the Cuban people more than the Communist government it has failed to dislodge.

This attitude seems especially surprising for two reasons. First, there is support for lifting the embargo from large elements of the American business community, especially the agricultural sector, where leaders see Cuba as a potentially large new market for U.S. goods. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donahue, a longtime embargo foe, said recently he hopes it will be lifted before the 2016 election, but there is no sign that will happen.

Second, the American people, even those in the once-vocal anti-Castro South Florida Cuban-American community, no longer support the pro-embargo policy to which most top Republicans cling — along with hardline Democratic allies such as Sen. Robert Menendez, of New Jersey, the son of Cuban immigrants.

A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that nearly three-fourths of those surveyed nationally favored both re-establishing diplomatic relations and ending the 55-year-old trade embargo. The same survey showed a majority of Republicans held similar views, though by smaller margins than the public as a whole.

Perhaps surprisingly, those attitudes are mirrored, though to a lesser degree, in the Cuban-American community. Ongoing polling by Miami's Florida International University last year showed more than two-thirds of Cuban-Americans in South Florida favored restoring diplomatic relations, and a slight majority even favored ending the embargo.

Those numbers rose among younger Cuban-Americans. Similarly, recent elections showed that older Cuban-Americans voted for Republicans, who generally took a hard line toward restoring relations with Cuba, while younger ones increasingly sided with Democrats more inclined to initiate policy changes.

That's one reason why, in 2012, Obama carried those once solidly Republican voters, helping him win a state Republicans consider crucial for their potential electoral majority.

It's understandable why the state's two GOP presidential candidates hold strong views on Cuba, Bush married to a Mexico native, Rubio the son of Cuban immigrants. But, in a broader sense, those views seems retrograde, especially for Rubio, whose whole mantra is that he represents the future.


Throughout the Cold War, the United States maintained diplomatic and trade relations with the Soviet Union, except when it imposed a grain embargo after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But Cuba, because of its proximity and the emotional ties in South Florida, has always been a special case.

But the days when Cuba and the Castros were seen as a hemispheric cancer and a potential enemy are long since gone. It's time for Rubio, Bush and other resistant officials to recognize reality and acknowledge that engagement with the outside world is the best way to speed change in a country that badly needs it.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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