Young Cuban-Americans Think Marco Rubio Is Stuck In The Past

He hopes to lead them, but his hardline views on Cuba are out of step.

MIAMI -- On a recent morning at Versailles Restaurant in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, the scene looked pretty much as it always does at "the world's most famous Cuban restaurant," a gathering spot for this city's bustling Cuban exile community since 1971.

Old men in polo shirts with Spanish-language newspapers tucked under their arms stood in semi-circles, pounding shots of cortadito, denouncing the Castro brothers and predicting what's going to happen in Florida's presidential primary on Tuesday.

Over by the bakery counter, Terry Penichet, who emigrated from Cuba to the United States as a 16-year-old in 1961, waited for her order to come through. Penichet said that she had already taken advantage of early voting to cast her ballot for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a fellow Cuban-American and south Floridian who had stopped by Versailles on the previous day.

Despite her support for Rubio, Penichet was realistic about his chances for the home state victory that he has guaranteed he will deliver. (Rubio trails GOP front-runner Donald Trump by more than 20 points, according to an average of recent polls.)

"I think of the candidates that are left, he's the best prepared," Penichet said before adding, "But I think they're going to force him to withdraw after Tuesday."

Penichet did not hide her frustration over Rubio's struggles in a campaign in which success has largely eluded him. She singled out for criticism college-aged supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for expecting a "free lunch" and reserved particular scorn for the young people in her own community who oppose Rubio's hardline positions on Cuba.

"They didn't suffer," Penichet said of the second-generation Cuban-Americans who largely support President Barack Obama's policy of opening up relations with Cuba.

Across the street at La Caretta -- a Cuban restaurant with a clientele whose average age was at least a few decades younger than the folks at Versailles -- Carlos Corrales, 33, was picking up a takeout order at the bar.

Asked for his opinion of Rubio and, more specifically, the senator's push to reverse the effort to normalize relations with Cuba, Corrales shook his head.

"I don't like him," he said of the first-term senator. "The older crowd is stuck in the past. I'm not from Cuba, but it's time to move forward. What has [the embargo] done? You've got to move on."

Corrales' wife Rebecca, 32, agreed.

"We find it hypocritical that he's a product of immigrants, and he takes such an anti-immigrant stance," she said in summing up her distaste for Rubio. "At the end of the day, it's not the politicians who suffer in Cuba. It's the people. If nothing has changed in 50 years, why do you think that old policy will work now? So at least with opening relations, there's a chance for change."

If nothing has changed in 50 years, why do you think that old policy will work now? Rebecca Corrales, 32

Polls show that Rubio remains popular with Cuban-Americans in Florida overall. But his struggles to engage younger members of that community -- long a powerhouse in the state's GOP politics -- are indicative of a larger problem: Rubio's inability to persuade minority voters who are his age and younger to get behind his campaign to provide "a new generation of leadership."

Since entering the race in April last year, the 45-year-old lawmaker has sought to portray himself as a fresh face for the Republican Party -- one who can appeal to fellow Hispanics with a more inclusive, optimistic message than the one being offered by other potential GOP standard-bearers. 

What Rubio has discovered, however, is that youth, energy and eloquence are not enough to expand the tent. He has maintained hardline conservative views that are far out of step with the positions largely shared among the younger, more diverse elements of the electorate. 

Rubio, for instance, believes in no exceptions for abortion in cases of rape and incest. When he is asked about climate change -- an issue of particular concern to younger voters -- his default response involves the observation that no law "can change the weather." And his contortions to walk back his previous push for comprehensive immigration reform have not gone unnoticed by younger voters who tend to be accepting of an increasingly pluralistic America. 

With his campaign now on life support, nowhere are Rubio's struggles to connect with the youth more evident than in his hometown of Miami, where his opposition to Obama's policy on Cuba stands in stark contrast to the views of younger Cuban-Americans who live here. This younger generation is, by and large, the cohort most likely to oppose continuing the embargo and most supportive of opening relations with the Communist regime -- a position that also garners increasing support from Cuban-Americans on the whole.

"He's marketing himself as the candidate of the 21st century and all of this talk about moving to the future," said David Gomez, the political director for CubaNow, which advocates for expanded trade and travel with Cuba. "Younger Cubans overwhelmingly support a policy of engagement and expanding travel. He's kind of reaching out to a crowd that's not there anymore."

In a jarring Florida Atlantic University poll released Sunday, Trump led Rubio among Hispanic Republican voters in the state by 37 percent to 35 percent. 

And in a Florida-Times Union poll released late last week, Rubio trailed Trump in Florida by an overall margin of 43 percent to 24 percent among likely primary voters and was tied with Trump among likely voters ages 18-29 -- not nearly enough to make up the massive deficit he faces with older voters.

"I think Senator Rubio -- politically speaking, at least -- is sort of disconnected with his constituency, particularly young people," said professor Frank Mora, a Cuban Research Institute fellow at Florida International University. "Just because there's a younger face, but the message is pretty much the same, doesn't make young people vote for you."

Still, this is Florida. Republican primaries aren't won and lost here through appeals to young people.

Rubio, however, appears to be caught in a no-win zone when it comes to his generational appeal. 

Back at Versailles, Armando, who declined to give his last name, clinked espresso glasses with one of his gray-haired friends and mentioned that he planned to vote in the primary on Tuesday. 

Asked what he thought about Rubio, Armando was succinct.

"Too young," he said.