A thaw in the forecast



Another day, another policy overhaul. President Obama said goodbye to the status quo yet again yesterday, flexing his executive authority to soften our traditionally hardline attitude toward communist Cuba. For the first time in decades (indeed, in the biggest policy shift since the ice age of the Cold War), Cuban-Americans can now visit the island as often as they want, and they can send money to their loved ones in whatever amounts they desire.

If you haven't been tracking our Cuba policy over the years - actually, there hasn't been much to follow, since the policy has been largely frozen since Fidel seized power 50 years ago - the Obama decrees on travel and money may not seem like such a big deal. But even these moves would have been unthinkable not that long ago; previous presidents didn't dare try to thaw any aspect of our Cold War stance, lest they suffer domestic political damage, particularly in the electorally pivotal state of Florida, where the populous Cuban-American community successfully punished any presidential candidate perceived to be a commie coddler.

But Obama's announcement is symptomatic of a fundamental shift in the Latino political calculus. The older Cuban-Americans in Miami, traditionally Republican, are still a force in the electorate - but not to the extent that they once were. They are joined now, on election day, by a growing number of younger Cuban ethnics who don't feel compelled to cast their ballots on the basis of the Fidel factor. For today's thirty-something Cuban-American, the events of 1959 are a distant, second-hand memory; they are far more likely than their elders to vote on the basis of the same issues that animate all Americans.

Moreover, there is apparently growing sentiment among Cuban-Americans for the kinds of policies that Obama announced yesterday. In 2007, a Florida academic poll discovered, for the first time in the survey's 18 years of queries, that a majority of the Miami Cubans favored an easing of the travel and money restrictions. (George W. Bush had actually toughened the travel restrictions in an '04 decree.) More than 60 percent favored a liberalized travel and money policy.

And not only is the Cuban-American community more ideologically diverse and apparently more tolerant these days, it is also less politically dominant within Florida's Latino electorate. In recent years, Latinos of Puerto Rican origin and Latinos of Central and South American origin have put down roots in great numbers, becoming citizens and putting their names on the voter rolls. (In 2008, Obama political operatives, recognizing in particular that Puerto Rican ethnics tend to vote Democratic, greatly aided this process by conducting voter registration campaigns.)

The results of these political shifts were evident last November. Obama won Florida by three percentage points overall - with considerable assistance from the state's Latinos, who favored him by a whopping 15 points. (Contrast that with 2004, when John Kerry lost the Florida Latinos by 12 points.) Obama didn't win the Cuban-American share of that electorate - he drew roughly 35 percent, far better than Kerry's '04 share - but Obama's massive statewide margin among Latinos is proof that the Cuban-American community no longer has the clout of yesteryear.

So with his domestic political flank covered, Obama can focus on the international politics. For instance, there are a number of left-wing Latin American governments that soured on Bush because of his tightened hardline stance toward Cuba; those governments have been courting China and Russia (and vice versa) on issues of trade and investment, and have been engaging in considerable anti-American rhetoric. Obama, by signaling the first step in a possibly extensive thaw in our Cuban policy, could potentially buoy our battered image in Latin America.

The big question, in the longer run, is whether Obama will indeed urge an extensive thaw and promote a normalization of relations. This would require shelving our decades-old trade embargo with Cuba - generally viewed as one of the untouchable third rails in American politics. (When Obama first ran for the Senate, he favored ending the embargo; as a presidential candidate, he did not.) The embargo clearly hasn't worked as intended; five decades ago, it was designed to economically isolate Fidel and precipitate his downfall. But there seems to be little appetite, within Obamaworld, to take this step in the foreseeable future, at least judging by how rarely the subject is broached.

But it's clear that the administration ideally intends to nudge us ever further away from the status quo. Yesterday, a National Security Council aide told the press that "U.S. policy toward Cuba is not frozen in time," and that the travel/money decree was "the place to start."

Obama apparently prefers to erase this final remnant of the Cold War in an incremental fashion - but, arguably, he need not be so cautious. A CNN poll reported last week that 71 percent of American favor the reestablishing of diplomatic relations with Cuba. A warm wind is at his back. The Obama long-range forecast is for a more extensive thaw.


An observation about the pirate saga:

It's another symptom of our national parochialism that the Somali pirate epidemic in the Indian Ocean - which has been raging for several years, at great cost to international shipping and trade - never got much play in the American press until now. But we all know the reason, although many of us are loath to admit it: An international crisis doesn't really exist until an American is directly endangered.

Even though Captain Phillips is now safe, and the yellow ribbons have been untied, perhaps there is still interest in the broader story. If so, I recommend reading this. It was published in, of all places, GQ magazine - and written by the East Africa bureau chief of The New York Times. If newspapers die, this kind of piece will likely disappear.