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MEMBERS ONLY: The U.S./Cuba Thaw Marks the End of Cuban Exile Hardliners' Political Power

For decades Miami's Cuban-American community has wielded outsized influence and demanded candidates local and national uphold the U.S.'s pointless standoff with Cuba. They just had the rug pulled out from under them.
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(Photo: Javier Galeano/Reuters)

If your home were on fire and your family was trapped inside, you'd probably first go for the front door. But if that door were locked or somehow jammed, how long would you push on it trying to get it open before you gave up and looked for another way inside? Five seconds? Ten? Would you be dumb enough to try to kick it in for a full minute, all while the fire continued to rage? Okay, now imagine taking a running start over and over and over again and throwing yourself against that same blocked entrance for more than a half-century. Your family would've been dead and buried decades ago. This kind of futile and absurdly counterproductive effort is exactly what a large portion of the Cuban exile community in Miami has engaged in by relying exclusively on the pointless U.S. embargo to bring change to Cuba. And yet that embargo has stayed in place precisely because of the power exile hardliners have always wielded at the voting booth. That time, however, is at a close -- and along with it, the frozen-in-time Cold War stance against Cuba.

On Wednesday, President Obama did something no other U.S. president has dared to do since the beginning of the 1960s: he took a giant step toward normalizing relations with Cuba. Stating a fact that should be obvious to all but the most stubborn, that "isolation has not worked" and therefore "it's time for a new approach," Obama announced that the release of a United States citizen from Cuba would mark the beginning of a new era for the two countries. With the help of Pope Francis, Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro agreed to take a bold step closer, with each country opening an embassy in the other, the U.S. easing travel and remittance restrictions, and Cuba releasing 53 political prisoners and consenting to monitoring by the U.N. and the Red Cross. To say that the move is significant would be an understatement; it will cement Obama's legacy as well as his place in history. But if you think that 54 years and not a thing to show for it should make what Obama is doing a political gimme, you really don't understand how tight Miami's stranglehold has been on American politics all these years.

I grew up in Miami. It's my home. I could spend days into weeks, and yards of copy space, trying to explain just how batshit insane the place is, but I'm not talented enough a writer to be able to paint the proper picture with words. For most of my lifetime, Miami has been the only city in America with its own foreign policy. It was a place where you could go on local radio and accuse someone running for, say, city council of being a communist and ruin that person's chances of being elected. It was a city that took on the United States government in the fight to keep a Cuban boy rescued at sea from being returned to his own father in 1999. (Only now that I have my own young daughter do I realize how utterly contemptuous this position was.) It was a place where bananas were thrown at city hall in response to Miami's role in that tug-of-war for Elian Gonzalez, meant to symbolize the banana republic on U.S. soil the city represented. It was a place where the arrival of any group of artists from Cuba was met with death threats and near-riots, despite the irony that censoring the arts amounted to a flawless reflection of the regime many in the city despised to the point of madness. And yes, it was a place where Fidel Castro, an admittedly murderous bastard, was elevated to near-mythic status and the hatred of him was akin to a religion. If you didn't despise Castro, you were branded an enemy. As long as you did, you were embraced -- no matter the atrocities you might have committed in the name of bringing him down.

(None of this even begins to scratch the surface of the ways in which Miami has behaved like its own relentlessly corrupt failed state politically. At various points, a substantial portion of the government of the city and its surrounding municipalities has been under investigation, under indictment or actually under arrest. It's a place where dead people vote -- seriously.)

I've said all of this about Miami publicly before and it cost me quite a few of my close friends' parents on Facebook. That should tell you something. There's a generation of Cuban-Americans for whom any overture toward resumed relations with Cuba and against the paralytic standoff that's existed for decades is an act of treason. I remember more than once being told, when I dared to challenge the codified Miami orthodoxy regarding Castro and Cuba, that I had to understand the passion of the Cuban exile community and respect it. The thing is, I did understand it, but when passion overrules reason it becomes counterproductive and therefore worthless. It was always possible to accept that the Castro regime was oppressive and should be held accountable for it while also understanding that the hardline approach simply wasn't working. But there are those who still don't get this -- and they're of course taking to the streets of Little Havana right now, because in Miami nothing foolhardy dies without a fight.

But some things are changing. According to a Pew poll taken in June, the Cuban population of the United States is shifting allegiances, leaning more Democratic than it has in the past. In 2012, President Obama nearly carried Florida's Cuban-American voting bloc, which if you grew up in Miami would seem like a nearly unimaginable feat. The aging hardliners are finally losing their grip after all this time and their offspring, many first-generation Americans, and its offspring are ready to finally try a window rather than banging on that door, the one their parents and grandparents did futilely for decades. We're now a thoroughly connected world and unless it's an absolute necessity, a country being left literally and figuratively in the dark feels like an antiquated notion.

What this means for the future, in addition to the changes on a national and global level, is that the political power wielded so effortlessly and sometimes vindictively by Miami's Cuban-American voters could be waning. President Obama specifically addressed the inevitable concerns of those change-resistant Cubans in Miami on Wednesday, saying, "Todos somos Americanos" -- we are all Americans -- and adding, "Change is hard... even harder when we carry the heavy weight of history on our shoulders, but today we are making these changes because it is the right thing to do." But that message won't carry an ounce of weight for those in positions of power who've derived much of their political authority from an intransigent stand against the Castro regime. People like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Marco Rubio have long used Fidel Castro as a cudgel with which to beat their opponents and a boogeyman with which to further scare their already petrified constituents. They owe a large part of their careers in politics to being able to say they can hold the U.S. to not budging and inch on Cuba, and President Obama just pulled the rug out from under them.

It practically goes without saying that this special genus of Florida political creature is already taking to the internet and airwaves en masse to decry President Obama's announcement on Cuba. Diaz-Balart cleverly calls Obama the "Appeaser-in-Chief" and Rubio says his actions are "part of long record of coddling dictators and tyrants." It's an almost comically ineffectual tantrum to throw, but one that was entirely predictable. Once again the most strident among conservatives find themselves on the wrong side of history and stubbornly standing in the way of progress -- in this case, in the name of trying to hold the earth in place for maybe another five decades.

But it feels like their efforts might be pointless now. The time of the hardliners is at a close. The end of an era has come for both Cuba and its exiles and their children and grandchildren. Change finally overtook Miami. It always does eventually.