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    Obama vote surges among Miami Cubans, but what does election mean for Cuba?

    Obama vote surges among Miami Cubans, but what does election mean for Cuba?

    By William Booth, Saturday, November 10, 2:19 AM

    MEXICO CITY — President Obama won a historic share of Cuban American

    ballots in Florida this week, challenging the Republican Party's lock on

    a voting bloc that for decades has defined U.S. policy toward Cuba and

    the Castro brothers.

    For the past five administrations, the power of the Cuban American vote

    in the swing state and its passionate, hard-line anti-Castro legislators

    have strongly influenced how presidents approached the Communist-led

    island, where a U.S. trade embargo and ban have been enforced for

    more than 50 years.

    The dramatic lurch of Cuban American voters away from the GOP in

    presidential contests is clear, but whether this will translate into a

    change in U.S. policy toward Cuba is unknown.

    According to exit polls, Obama took 48 percent of the Cuban American

    vote in Florida this week, up from 35 percent in 2008. In 2000, Al Gore

    took only 25 percent of that vote.

    Also on Tuesday, Joe Garcia, a Cuban American Democrat who is a former

    head of the Cuban American National Foundation, a powerful lobbying

    group in Miami and Washington, defeated incumbent Republican Rep. David

    Rivera in Florida's 26th Congressional District, which includes south

    Miami and the Florida Keys.

    Garcia favors a slow, cautious engagement with Cuba and approves of the

    Obama administration's decision to allow more Cuban Americans to visit

    their homeland more often and to send more money and goods there — a far

    less strict policy than many Republicans in Congress endorse.

    It is still against the law for ordinary Americans to travel to or do

    business in Cuba — though with exceptions to the embargo, the United

    States sells more than $350 million in chickens, corn, soy and wheat to

    the island each year, for cash only.

    "The number of Cuban Americans going for Obama were shocking to us, and

    we have been studying this section of electorate for more than 30

    years," said pollster Fernand Amandi in Miami.

    "For Republicans, this must be very sobering, because in a quick,

    dramatic shift, your most reliable base of Hispanics in the GOP are

    suddenly not there," said Amandi, managing partner of the survey group

    Bendixen & Amandi International.

    Both advocates for more engagement and the hard-liners opposed to such

    measures agree that forward movement is difficult as long as Havana

    resists overtures to free Alan , a U.S. government contractor

    imprisoned in Cuba as an agent of subversion and sentenced to 15 years

    for bringing satellite communications equipment to the country.

    "But for the first time in years, maybe there is some chance for a

    change in policy," said Wayne Smith, a former diplomat who served as

    chief of mission at the U.S. , the virtual U.S. embassy

    in Havana, during the Carter administration.

    "There are now many more new young Cuban Americans who support a more

    sensible approach to Cuba," Smith said.

    Exit polls showed that among Cuban Americans born in the United States,

    more than 60 percent voted for Obama.

    Phil Peters, a Cuba analyst at the libertarian Lexington Institute,

    called the GOP slide in Miami "the hard-liner's last hurrah," and asked

    in his , "Who would have imagined that President Obama could

    liberalize Cuba policies and increase his Miami-Dade margin by four points?"

    The exit polls, however, did not ask Cuban Americans about Cuba policy.

    The survey group ImpreMedia shows that Latino voters in Florida named

    the and jobs as the most important issue in this election,

    followed by immigration, and care.

    "I don't expect there will be a big change in the Obama administration

    policy toward Cuba, for several reasons," said James Cason, mayor of

    Coral Gables in Miami-Dade County and former chief of the U.S. Interest

    Section in Havana under President George W. Bush.

    Cason pointed out that Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of

    the House Foreign Affairs Committee, won reelection handily, and she

    remains a staunch opponent of rapprochement.

    So does Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who serves on the Senate

    Committee on Foreign Relations, where he could ascend to the

    chairmanship, which would create additional roadblocks to any changes

    requiring congressional approval.

    "I think Cuba remains in the backwaters of foreign policy," Cason said.

    Another former diplomat and U.S. ambassador in the region, Everett

    Briggs, said, "Obama has made moves to normalize relations, but he has

    gotten nothing in return."

    "Cuba is not a normal country, so we shouldn't fool ourselves to treat

    it as such," Briggs said.

    In Cuba, Obama is a popular president, and there is hope that he will

    help improve life on the island.

    Carlos Alzugaray, former a Cuban diplomat who is now an academic in

    Havana, said, "If Obama continues doing what he has done so far, which

    is not really very much — being more flexible for travel — this is a

    beneficial trend, but the serious challenges, like the embargo, like

    removing Cuba from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, this

    requires Congress."

    Kirenia Nuñez Perez, a activist in Havana, said that

    opposition groups in Cuba support Obama, but are frustrated that the

    Cuban government continues to detain and harass dissidents. "So the

    question is, will there be a better relationship? Better for who? The

    Cuban government or the Cuban people?"

    Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.