George W. Bush’s brand of compassion doesn’t please all of Florida’s conservatives these days. The limited-Spanish-proficient President’s message isn’t translating very well among Cubanoamericanos–even though Bush came to Miami bearing federal gifts of billions of dollars for storm-ravaged residents of the hurricane state, has continued to trumpet his support for the embargo against Castro’s Cuba and has been salsaing up his broken English speeches with broken Spanish (on August 27 in Miami, he said, “Last weekend, we’re continuing to implement our strategy of la verdad, the truth”).
Thanks to Bush’s May announcement of new regulations limiting travel between the United States and Cuba, significant political divisions have taken root among heretofore reliably Republicano Cuban-Americans. As a consequence of the policy changes, introduced by Bush’s Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, Cubans who had grown used to visiting family on la isla at least once a year can now see their relatives only once every three years. The commission also placed new restrictions on remittances (money families send from the United States to other countries) and changed the definition of which family members are eligible for both visits and remittances–dismissing the Latin American sense of family, which includes distant relatives, in favor of a more WASPish, North American one, which emphasizes spouses, sons and daughters, parents and siblings.
These policies have divided the Cuban political family (writ large) by dividing the Cuban genealogical family (writ small). When the President arrived recently at Miami Arena to deliver a speech aimed at shoring up support among older, more conservative Cuban-Americans, greeting him outside were a group of younger, highly educated twenty-, thirty- and forty-something Cuban-American protesters. Waving American–and Cuban–flags and placards saying Bush: Don’t Divide the Cuban Family were members of groups such as Cuban Americans for Change, which opposes the travel and remittance restrictions with the same single-mindedness that has long defined the political culture centered in the faux Spanish Colonial streets of Little Havana. For them, the family crisis has supplanted the embargo. And as a result, the forty-plus-year embargo-based unity fostered by aging exile patriarchs and ex-CIA operatives is coming unglued; the once monolithic wall of Cuban-American politics is cracking.
The election-year volatility of Calle Ocho politics was previewed during the Elián González affair, which galvanized Bush- and Gore-leaning Cubans around the old-guard Republican embargo-politicos to help Bush to victory in 2000. But the Elián saga was only the most public scene in a political drama that will reach its climax when US-born Cubans and those who migrated after 1980 come to full political maturity as they register and vote in the next decade.
It is already clear that the division between those who want to define the Cuban family by continuing (and tightening) the embargo and those Cuban-Americans wanting to unite the family by removing the embargo is permanent–unlike the once immovable institutions that built Cuban-American power.
The Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) was once the star chamber of Miami politics, back when it housed the desk of the late Jorge Mas Canosa, who used to stroll into the White House and help shape US policy around Cuba and the rest of Latin America. Mas Canosa also had a hand in selecting people for crucial positions, from local and state officials to the head of the powerful Latin America desk in the State Department. Today, Castro-foe (“Fidel attacks me regularly”) Joe Garcia, former head and current board member of CANF, outlines the new contours of Calle Ocho realpolitik: “We’re not single-issue anymore, and we care about much more than just the embargo.”