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Cuban-American resistance to diplomatic thaw proves tepid

cubausaMIAMI--Ron Magill, a prominent Cuban-American who works as spokesman for the Miami zoo, was pleasantly surprised when he returned from a quiet trip to Havana earlier this year.

For the most part, his friends and acquaintances, many of them second- and third-generation Cuban Americans, responded warmly when they found out about his visit, said Magill, 55, who toured the island in April with U.S. zoo and aquarium directors. "I've been surprised at the lack of negative responses and overwhelmed by the amount of positive ones," he said.

Not too long ago, Magill's trip would have angered many in the city's large exile community, who have long condemned visits as undermining a policy of isolating Cuba's communist government. For decades Cuban-American leaders have used their powerful political influence to keep U.S. sanctions in place as long as Fidel Castro and his brother Raul ruled the island nation.

With that in mind, a wave of Cuban-American outrage might have been expected after the announcement of a historic thaw in relations six months ago, culminating on Monday on the restoration of diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana after a 54-year hiatus. But the hardline pushback never materialized.

"It's over and done in Miami. It died with a whimper," said Pedro Freyre, a Cuban-born Miami lawyer with Akerman, a national law firm that represents several U.S. and foreign clients seeking to do business in Cuba.

A former hardliner himself, Freyre said U.S. President Barack Obama's new policy was now widely accepted by South Florida's 1.5 million Cuban exiles. To be sure, Cuban-American political leaders such as Republican presidential hopeful Senator Marco Rubio - as well as another Miami-based candidate, Jeb Bush - have accused Obama of appeasing Cuba's communist rulers. But such talk appears to be swimming against the tide.

Opponents to restoring diplomatic ties have failed to mobilize large street protests. And while many disapprove of the policy, there is widespread resignation shaped by shifting demographics. The diehard anti-Castro generation is aging, giving way to younger, U.S.-born Cuban Americans who take a more pragmatic approach. The same is true for recent exiles, many of whom have relatives in Cuba and welcome the likely economic benefits of closer U.S. ties.

A poll last week found that 40 percent of Cuban-American would vote for a candidate favouring normalization of relations while only 26 percent would be less inclined to. Several key Cuban-American Republicans, including major Bush backers, have signaled their strong support for the new policy.

"Cuban-Americans everywhere, but especially the diaspora in South Florida, have been awakening to the reality that Cuba's isolation was and is not a sustainable strategy," Mike Fernandez, a healthcare millionaire and Bush supporter, wrote in an opinion column for the Miami Herald this month. "It's time to accept change. Let us not heed those relatively few voices who would go on continuing to trap our minds in hatred."

Hardliners who famously have raised substantial sums to successfully lobby Congress to maintain a five decades-old economic embargo against Cuba are being matched by new groups lobbying for Obama's policy. "It seems that Obama enjoys helping enemies and fighting friends," said Remedios Diaz-Oliver, a shipping company owner who left Cuba as a young student in 1961 and is a co-founder of the pro-embargo US-Cuba Democracy PAC.

"It's all a nonsense," she added saying Obama gave Cuba too much for nothing in return. "All Obama is doing is consolidating a dictatorship."

Supporters of the new policy argue it is a long-term strategy that deserves to be given time to see if it encourages Cuba to move faster toward a free-market economy while showing greater respect for human rights. They note the change has been well received by ordinary Cubans on the island, including some leading anti-Castro dissidents.

"The old guard still wants heads on the block and Marines on the beach, but they don't seem to have realized that the world had changed," said Eddy Arriola, 43, the Cuban-American chairman of a Miami-based community bank who served on Obama's campaign finance committee in 2008 and 2012.

"The PACs are raising peanuts compared to the business interests that are lining up," he added, pointing to Cuban business plans announced by Airbnb, JetBlue Airways Corp and Miami-based cruise company Carnival Corp.

Meanwhile, more Cuban exiles are making the trek back home, some out of nostalgia for forgotten homes and dead relatives, others to explore future economic opportunities, even scouting out future retirement homes. Magill, the zoo spokesman, came back from his visit convinced the policy change was smart.

"I was uncertain before I left as there were certain members of my family that were strongly against any travel to Cuba so I wanted to see for myself," he said. "I've never been prouder of my Cuban roots."

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