December 17, 2014 / 5:47 PM / 3 years ago

From joy to outrage, Florida's Cuban-Americans greet new U.S. policy

Cuban-American Cassandra Gonzalez (C) poses during the Cuba Nostalgia Festival in Miami, Florida May 16, 2009.Carlos Barria

MIAMI (Reuters) - Some Cuban exiles responded with outrage. Others with ecstasy.

News on Wednesday that the United States will restore diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than a half century divided America's 1.5-million-strong Cuban exile community and threatened to shake up the political landscape in the vital battleground state of Florida.

The reaction in Florida, which is home to about 80 percent of the nation's Cuban-American population, reflects a generational shift in an exile community whose powerful political influence in the United States and steadfast support for the Republican Party helped keep U.S. sanctions on Cuba in place for decades.

But with President Barack Obama's vow to push for "an honest and serious debate" about lifting the United States' long-standing economic embargo against Cuba, many Cuban exiles welcomed the turn, seeing a chance for more engagement with the homeland they left behind.

"It's amazing," said Hugo Cancio, who came to Miami in the 1980 Mariel boatlift and runs a magazine with offices in Miami and Havana. "This is a new beginning, a dream come true for the 11.2 million Cubans in Cuba, and I think it will provoke a change of mentality here too in this community."

"I'm ecstatic," he added. "I've been working for this moment for 25 years".

Such enthusiasm was not universal. In Miami's Little Havana neighbourhood, occupants of passing cars screamed "Obama traitor" in Spanish. Other people on a sidewalk shouted "Obama communista."

"This is nothing to be happy about," said Maria-Angeles Martinez, 50, who joined a crowd voicing displeasure at Versailles, a popular Cuban restaurant. "I don't believe in talking about anything with the Castros. It's freedom or nothing."

Hardcore foes of former Cuban President Fidel Castro and his brother and current President Raul Castro have been a potent political force in Florida, one of the country's most hard- fought states in presidential elections.

"DRAMATIC OVERREACH"

Older exiles who oppose any opening to Cuba still wield considerable influence. Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who on Tuesday said he was actively exploring a presidential bid in 2016, was quick to criticise the White House's move to restore diplomatic ties as "dramatic overreach."

But the diehard anti-Castro generation is ageing. And with many younger exiles having arrived since 1980 with no direct memories of life under Castro and many more Cuban-Americans born in the United States, there is a younger generation of Cuban-Americans that is more pragmatic and more influenced by the needs of relatives who remain in Cuba.

Obama's announcement could complicate efforts by Bush, a Republican, to rally support for a presidential bid in a Cuban-American community whose divisions may be accentuated by a restoration in diplomatic ties. Many Republicans have struggled to win the presidency by taking Florida's Electoral College votes, which at 29 ties it with New York as No. 3 among the U.S. states in electoral votes. Obama won Florida twice.

Bush, whose father, George H.W., and brother George W. were both U.S. presidents, is considered the Republican frontrunner in the 2016 race for the White House.

Obama's announcement on Cuba was welcomed by younger Cuban-Americans who have increasingly pushed for change and vote Democrat in growing numbers, a contrast to older exiles who believe President John. F. Kennedy - a Democrat - betrayed them during the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

"It's no exaggeration to say that this is a historic day," said Pedro Freyre, a Cuban-American attorney in Miami who was formerly a Republican and a one-time hardliner on Cuba but now calls himself a conservative Democrat. "I think it is the right thing to do at the right time."

Some Cuban exiles embraced the prospect of trying something new with Cuba after so many years. At Sergio's, a popular Cuban restaurant in Miami, Octavio De Armas, 62, speculated about the future of an island he left as a child, as he sipped a Cuban espresso sitting at a outdoor patio.

"If things like this cafe can start happening there, if people can have a better life, I'm all for change," he said.

Additional reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Fla.; Editing by Jason Szep and Leslie Adler

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