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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.

Anti-Castro activists carry a sculpture of Cuban leader Fidel Castro during a ceremony to destroy it in Little Havana, Miami, Nov. 8, 2006. The Cuban-American community persuaded artist Daniel Edwards, who created the controversial sculpture, to bring it to Miami to be destroyed rather than display it in Central Park, New York, as previously planned. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

WEST NEW YORK, N.J. — For a decade now — the fervent anti-Castro movement, which has influenced U.S. foreign policy ever since the Cuban Revolution of 1961, has been losing its grip on its community in America.

Polls and anecdotal evidence, including the record numbers of Cuban-Americans who voted Democratic in the 2008 presidential elections, indicate a more moderate strain of thought is becoming the mode of the day.

The trend has worried the hard-liners of the Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF) — the group whose name can still send chills up the spine of American politicians, like Albio Sires, the New Jersey Democrat representing this area.

But the Cuban lobby, which has always prided itself on having friends in high places, this time found its best friend in the regime of Fidel Castro and his brother Raul. After years in decline, the death of Cuban political prisoner dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo has galvanized the old guard and derailed President Barack Obama’s plans to normalize relations with the Caribbean island nation.

As a candidate, Obama courted electoral danger in Florida by promising to ask Cuba to begin a “new era in relations.” Once elected, he promptly made good on that promise, using that exact phrase at a Summit of the Americas gathering in April 2009. Cuba’s leader Raul Castro, who the U.S. prevented from attending, responded with a statement offering talks on all subjects.

Then, in June 2009, the Organization of American States (OAS) — once viewed as something of a rubber stamp for U.S. policy in the region — voted to readmit Cuba after a suspension that began in 1962. But conditions the Obama administration inserted into the OAS resolution — including demands for a release of political prisoners like Tamayo and guarantees of freedom of speech — not surprisingly, led Cuba to refuse the OAS invitation.

Since then, it’s been all downhill. Obama lifted travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans and made it easier for them to wire money to relatives on the island. But several rounds of talks with Cuban officials on migration issues have gone nowhere because Cuban officials repeatedly refused to discuss human rights issues or Washington’s call for free elections.

And then came Tamayo, a bricklayer swept up by Castro’s regime because he had a habit of complaining about censorship and the island’s lack of political freedoms. Tamayo died in March after a long hunger strike.

Following Tamayo's death, Obama publicly condemned Cuba. He renewed his call for the release of all political prisoners and chastised the Castros for not “embracing an opportunity to enter a new era” of relations with the U.S.

After a year of trying to engineer a breakthrough, the Obama administration appears to have rejoined the fight, though perhaps not as stridently as the anti-Castro lobby would like.