Barack Obama will be the first U.S. president to step on Cuban soil today in nearly a century. Cuba, just 90 miles off Florida’s shores, has always been so near and yet so far in American political imagination.
Near enough for thousands of Cuban refugees to push off in rafts, braving shark-infested waters, to reach these shores – although nowadays they make the trek on foot, crossing Central America, traveling through Mexico and literally walking across the U.S.-Mexico border.
And yet Cuba and its 11 million people are so far off that no American president has visited the island in 90 years, a reflection of the frosty relationship between the two powers, as the U.S. fought the communist Castro brothers –Fidel and Raúl – in a war of words and economic embargo since the two overthrew Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
The visit, jumpstarted in 2014 when Obama announced he would re-establish relations with Cuba, sets the clock for a new beginning. And what a beginning. Air Force One takes to the air with the help of influential Cuban business titans in Miami. Yes, Miami, the frenetic South Florida city historically known as “the seventh province of Cuba” and fanatically anti-Castro, is undergoing a political transformation. Younger generations are taking a second look at the embargo and concluding it’s a disaster.
Less than 50 percent of Cuban-Americans support the embargo, based on a Florida International University poll conducted in 2014. In spirit, will and imagination Florida, too, is joining Obama on this trip, ending, perhaps forever, decades of emotional anguish between Cubans here and Cubans there.
“We view national reconciliation as both a process and a goal. We recognize its difficulties, but are convinced of its necessity,” writes the Cuba Study Group on cubastudygroup.org. “Our process of reconciliation must be focused on Cuba’s future, not its past.”
The Cuba Study Group comprises prominent Cubans who once were big supporters of the embargo: Florida sugar magnate Alfonso Fanjul, health care entrepreneur Mike Fernández and former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who served under George W. Bush.They, along with Cuba Study Group Chairman Carlos Saladrigas, will join Obama on the trip.
About 20 or more members of Congress will visit Cuba with Obama, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and New York Congressman Charles Rangel. Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a proponent of lifting the Cuban embargo, is scheduled to make the trip, one of few Republicans to do so.
Another Republican, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, is being left behind. Rubio opposes Obama’s trip to Cuba – as do most of Florida’s GOP congressional delegation. In addition, about 59 percent of Florida Republicans are against the trip, according to a Bendixen survey conducted earlier this month. But in a stunning rebuke of the man and his policies, 67 state counties rejected Rubio in last week’s Florida presidential primary.
Change is coming. Cuba today is closer than ever.
• Restored diplomatic relations (summer 2015)
• Opened up travel to Cuba, including direct travel on U.S. airlines
• Increased hotel investments
• Allowed more transactions with U.S. dollars in Cuba
• Restoration of direct mail between the two countries