By Amie Parnes - 12/17/14 05:11 PM EST
President Obama’s decision to seek normalized relations with Cuba sets up new challenges for Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonLynch pressured to recuse herself after Clinton tarmac meeting Trump: 'I’m just flabbergasted’ by Clinton-Lynch meet AFL-CIO head: Trump’s ‘a fraud’ MORE, the Democratic front-runner for the White House if she chooses to run.
Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have a contentious history with the Cuban-American population in Florida that goes back to the fight over Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban child whom the president allowed to be returned to his father in Havana after Gonzalez fled to Florida with his mother, who died on the voyage.
Many in the Cuban-American community blamed Clinton for Gonzalez's return to the island, and some maintain it hurt Vice President Al Gore’s chances of winning the presidency in 2000.
Former Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), who left Cuba as a child, predicted that the move by Obama on Wednesday would affect the Cuban-American vote in a way that would not be good for Obama or Clinton.
“It's so broad, so sweeping, with no measured steps that I really think it's going to look pretty bad,” Martinez said in an interview with The Hill.
He also warned that the actions will remind Cuban-Americans of the Clinton policies toward Cuba that they opposed, as well as the Gonzalez incident.
“It's a reminder,” he said. “I think all of that gets revived.”
Clinton late Wednesday said she backed Obama's decision to seek normalized relations with Cuba.
"Despite good intentions, our decades-long policy of isolation has only strengthened the Castro regime's grip on power," Clinton said in a statement. "As I have said, the best way to bring change to Cuba is to expose its people to the values, information, and material comforts of the outside world.
"The goal of increased U.S. engagement in the days and years ahead should be to encourage real and lasting reforms for the Cuban people. And the other nations of the Americas should join us in this effort," she said. .
In her memoir Hard Choices released last summer, she wrote that she recommended Obama “take another look at our embargo” toward the end of her tenure.
“It wasn’t achieving its goals and it was holding back our broader agenda across Latin America,” she wrote. “After twenty years of observing and dealing with the U.S.-Cuba relationship, I thought we should shift the onus onto the Castros to explain why they remained undemocratic and abusive.”
Martinez argued that would be difficult for Clinton to break from Obama’s policies given her own positions on Cuba. “She owns so much of [Obama's] foreign policy,” Martinez said.
And such positions historically have not gone down well with Cuban-American voters in Florida, a decisive swing state in any presidential election.
“The overwhelming majority of those who vote are conservative,” Sebastián Arcos, the associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami, said of Florida’s Cuban-Americans. “I think it’s a problem for her.”
Some observers believe the political climate has changed, particularly among younger people born in the United States who have no deep attachment to the embargo.
“The trend lines show that most Cuban-Americans think the embargo has failed, and they have a very different prospective than their parents and grandparents. It’s a very different landscape,” said Luis Miranda, a strategist who previously served as the director of Hispanic Media at the White House during the Obama administration. “Hillary Clinton recognizes that and that’s why she felt so comfortable putting it in her book.”
The Cuban Research Institute conducted their annual Cuba poll earlier this year asking respondents if they favored or supported the embargo in Cuba. And while the results came back at almost a dead-even split, 51 percent of those registered to vote favored continuing the embargo. However, only 43 percent of unregistered voters, likely a younger demographic, favored keeping it.
Several Republicans thought to be possible White House contenders have taken a much tougher line than Clinton, ensuring the issue could resonate in a general election.
Jeb Bush — a former governor of Florida who resides in Miami and announced on Tuesday that he’s actively exploring a 2016 presidential campaign — said Wednesday that he opposed Obama’s decision to normalize relations.
“I don’t think we should be negotiating with a repressive regime to make changes in our relationship,” Bush said at an event in Florida, according to USA Today.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), whose parents fled Cuba, took an even tougher line in accusing the White House of having a naive foreign policy.
“It is a victory for the repressive Cuban government and a serious setback for the repressed Cuban people,” he said of the announced changes. “The White House has conceded everything and gained little.”
This story was updated at 7:38 p.m.