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Opinion: For Obama, wind shifts on Cuba

The Cuba lobby feeling buoyant after dissident’s death pushes Obama to condemn Castro.

In this Hudson River town, which is home to the second largest concentration of Cuban-Americans after Miami, the hard-line older generation of exiles with their angry, fervent memories of fleeing Castro’s revolution has given way to a younger crowd willing to think the unthinkable (and sometimes even speak out publicly).

Maybe isolation, after nearly a half century of U.S. economic embargo, has been a failure? Maybe it even has something to do with the fact that Fidel Castro’s regime now ranks as the longest running tyranny on earth?

Of course, the embargo is a failure and has been for decades. Even among Cuban-Americans, this is now clear. Florida International University, which conducts a yearly poll of Cuban-American sentiment, finds an overwhelming majority — 65 percent — now favor direct dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba.

The FIU poll identified a major tipping point in 2008, when for the first time less than half of respondents — just 45 percent supported the continuing U.S. economic embargo. That's down sharply from 2004, when 66 percent wanted the embargo to continue.

For those who have tried to keep the flame of anti-communism alive some 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, keeping these winds of change at bay has been a challenge. At a rally here last weekend marking the 49th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the wound seemed fresh.

The mostly gray-haired crowd stood on the blustery Palisades Cliffs overlooking Manhattan, decrying Castro’s tyrannical rule and lionizing the U.S.-trained Cuban exile army that met its fate in that famously botched invasion so many years ago.

“I think we might have been sleepwalking,” said a local anti-Castro organizer who asked to remain anonymous. “But this brave man’s death has changed everything. It reminded all of us what the fight is all about.”

As 2010 continues, the early feelers from Obama will likely diminish with mid-term elections looming and several important races raging in Florida, including one pitting the moderate incumbent Republican Gov. Charlie Crist against Cuban-American firebrand Marco Rubio, a vocal anti-Castro figure and rising star in the GOP ranks. Bottom line: Another false dawn for this tortured relationship.

Michael Moran is Foreign Affairs columnist for GlobalPost, covering global economics, politics and U.S. foreign policy from New York.