It wasn’t so long ago that reestablishing diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba seemed politically unthinkable. So it’s natural to ask: What really changed? But while much of the focus has been on the generational changes affecting the Cuban-American community, and the foreign policy-driven considerations of President Barack Obama, there was also a somewhat ignored, and potentially more decisive, demographic shift that made this change possible.
The shift dates back to 1994-95, when President Bill Clinton and the Cuban government reached a deal to grant 20,000 visas per year to Cubans wishing to reside permanently in the United States. This led to a large wave of Cubans coming to the United States, different in background and politics from those that departed the island in the wake of Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. This more recent group ended up being quite large, and continues to grow—they account for about one-third of the close to 900,000 Cuban Americans living in Miami Dade County today.
To be sure, the generational gap between the oldest generation and those younger than 65 is real. Since 1991, Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute has been polling the Cuban-American community about its views relating to U.S. policy toward Cuba. In 2014, the FIU Cuba Poll showed that 88 percent of respondents (Cuban Americans living in Miami Dade County) between the ages of 18 to 29 favored the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba. By comparison, only 41 percent of respondents 65 or older were in favor. Seventy-eight percent of respondents between the ages of 30 to 44 and 68 percent of those 45 to 64 favored the reestablishment of diplomatic relations.
But the recent arrivals factor is also compelling. The FIU Cuba Poll analyzed the answers to the same question above based on respondents’ year of departure from Cuba. Respondents who left Cuba from 1995 to 2014 favored the reestablishment of diplomatic relations by a whopping four to one margin. In contrast, only 47 percent of those who left from 1959 to 1964 were in favor, as well as 40 percent of those who left from 1965 to 1973, 49 percent of those who left from 1974 to 1980 and 65 percent of those who left from 1981 to 1994.
Overall, the FIU Cuba Poll found that 55 percent of registered Cuban-American voters and 83 percent of unregistered voters favored the reestablishment of diplomatic relations.
The theory behind the generational gap is as follows: younger Cuban Americans have fewer memories of, and are less emotionally invested in, Cuba than those who continue to feel the sting of personal loss associated especially with the early, transformative years of the Cuban revolution. However, younger generations are much more invested personally and professionally in the United States and, even if they favor better ties between the U.S. and Cuba, are unlikely to take advantage of those improved ties absent a concrete link between themselves and family or friends in Cuba. In other words, they are unlikely to become strong advocates of the President’s new approach to Cuba.
But such is not the case with recent arrivals. Having been raised under socialism, this group is less likely to have left Cuba for political reasons. Like the vast majority of immigrants to the United States from the rest of Latin America and the world, they are much more likely to have been motivated by the search for economic opportunities not available to them at home. And, just like other recent immigrants to the U.S. from around the world, they are likely to maintain strong ties with their country of origin, which compels them to want to visit and provide financial assistance to relatives in Cuba. Unlike earlier waves of Cuban immigrants who supported a policy of political and economic isolation with the aim of weakening the Cuban government, and despite the potential economic consequences to the island’s residents, recent immigrants are more likely to support engagement that improves the economic condition of ordinary citizens in Cuba, even if doing so results, inadvertently, in filling the Cuban government’s coffers.
It should be noted that, reflecting general voting patterns in the U.S., younger Cuban Americans are less likely to vote than older Cuban Americans, and more recent immigrants from Cuba are either not yet eligible to vote or vote with less frequency than Cuban Americans who have been in the U.S. more many years. This helps to explain why, despite the majority of Cuban Americans in favor of diplomatic engagement between the U.S. and Cuba, none of the eight members of Congress who are of Cuban-American heritage (three in the Senate and five in the House) have embraced the President’s policy shift. But as more Cubans arrive in the U.S. in the months and years to come, and join those already present in becoming citizens and more politically engaged, their pro-engagement interests are likely to resonate with greater effect in the halls of Congress and the White House, much in the same way that previous waves of Cuban-American immigrants helped shape U.S. policy toward Cuba, however in a decidedly different direction.
Arnavat is a Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a member of Americas Quarterly’s editorial board. CSIS does not take specific policy positions; the views expressed are the author’s own.
Tags: foreign policy, U.S.-Cuba