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Dec 18, 2014 6:04 PM

Think Cuban-Americans all think alike? Think again

The Associated Press

MIAMI (AP) Anyone who thinks Cuban-Americans think alike on Cuba hasn't taken a close look at the community lately, poet Richard Blanco says.

Blanco, who celebrated a multicultural America by reading his poem "One Today" at President Barack Obama's second inauguration, was raised in Miami, the son of exiles who fled shortly after Fidel and Raul Castro's 1959 revolution.

Now 46, Blanco says his generation straddles a sharp generational divide: feeling personally the pain their parents endured, but also free to leave their baggage behind.

"There is a public face of what the exile community stands for, but on an individual level, Miami Cubans have changed a lot, and there are also many different experiences," Blanco told The Associated Press in an interview on Thursday. "Those lines have become very blurry."

Polls show younger Cuban-Americans and newer arrivals increasingly favor abandoning Washington's embargo against the communist government. Older generations are more likely to keep condemning anything seen as supporting the Castros.

Obama's surprise move to begin restoring ties to Cuba made Blanco realize just how profoundly his world view has developed around the idea that his family's homeland would remain cut off for years to come. But after five decades of despair and dashed hopes, many Cuban Americans are themselves conflicted over the sudden possibility of real change, he says.

That turmoil was evident when Obama's vow to work with Congress to end the embargo prompted scattered protests in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood. Yet privately, some other older exiles applauded the announcement, acknowledging that U.S. attempts to isolate Cuba have failed to bring down the Castros.

Younger Cubans living in the U.S. aren't monolithic either some remain hesitant to reach out to Cuba, deterred by the suffering of their parents and grandparents.

At 31, Mayelin Rodriguez is both younger and more recently arrived than most of the two million Cubans living in the United States, and yet she's reluctant to embrace Obama's overtures. She fled at age 18, and has personally experienced the suffering both of exiles and those who remain in Cuba.

"Of course I want them to be well and have what they need to live," Rodriguez said. "But not at the cost of forgetting the crimes of the Cuban government."

The first Cubans to flee the island are now elderly and ever-smaller in number. More Cubans born long after the revolution arrive every year. Surveys show both factors are reshaping views. About 60 percent of Cubans living in the States who are 60 and older support a hard line. But 62 percent of those aged 18 to 29 oppose the embargo, according to a 2014 poll by Florida International University.

"For the older generation, the idea of diplomatic relations with Cuba is very hard to swallow," but many privately acknowledged that U.S. policies have failed, said Andy Gomez, a Cuba expert and retired University of Miami professor.

More than ever, prominent older Cuban Americans have publicly expressed a desire to reconnect with Cuba.

Billionaire sugar baron Alfonso Fanjul, whose family's business was seized by the Cuban revolutionaries, spoke publicly for the first time this year about investing in the island. The director of Miami's new art museum spoke about his desire for artistic exchange. Similar gestures once provoked violent responses from South Florida's exiles.

Now, even some of the community's most radical Castro opponents have softened their views.

Antonio Veciana led the paramilitary group Alpha 66, which pushed for years for an armed uprising against the Castros. On Thursday, even he was supporting Obama.

"President Obama has faith this new policy will advance the future of democracy in Cuba," Veciana told the AP. "I also have faith this will help advance the future of democracy in Cuba."

Jacobo Rodriguez, 72, reached Florida in 1971 after spending a year in a Cuban prison for trying to flee. Three friends who tried to escape with him were shot, he said.

Early Thursday, he stood outside Versailles, the Cuban restaurant in Miami that has long served as their cornerstone, lamenting that Obama is abandoning a half-century of efforts to starve the Castros out of power.

"It's like giving blood to a dying patient," Rodriguez said. "It's giving Cuba a lifeline again."

Obama acknowledged these views, but said he believes more contact between people from both countries might do more to bring change.

Blanco said he's simply eager to engage in conversation with writers on the island. Before Obama's announcement, he said he was hesitant, not wanting to insult other Cuban-Americans. Now, he feels more free to travel back and forth.

"I think it's going to be a lot easier to think about that," he said. "Now there is this moment to really start bridging those emotional gaps."


Follow Christine Armario on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/cearmario


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