Rocking the Cuban Vote

Rocking the Cuban Vote

Once-Republican Miami takes a left turn.


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.”

Garcia has been outspoken about what he feels is the shortsightedness of the Bush Administration’s Cuba policies. “I think that what Bush has done best is to refine how he says ‘Viva Cuba Libre’ in order to produce a short-term psychological effect that inspires people like my grandmother, who was displaced from her home, displaced from her family, displaced from her culture, displaced from her country,” he says. And in a refrain heard with greater frequency along Calle Ocho, Garcia adds, “Unfortunately for the Republicans, many of us heard this four years ago and know that it means nothing beyond November.”

Since Garcia wrote letters critical of Bush policies toward Cuba, CANF has fallen from grace in Washington. Several members of the CANF board of directors left in protest to form the Cuban Liberty Council, now considered by many the new (but weaker) right-wing center of Little Havana.

Sounding like many in California during the Proposition 187 immigration wars, which ultimately wrought severe damage in Republican California, Garcia, who left CANF to become senior adviser in Florida to the New Democrat Network, foresees a similar fate for the GOP in the browning Sunshine State. “Bush may become the Pete Wilson of Florida politics. In their lust for a short-term electoral win, Bush and the Republicans have damaged things so badly that you will again see the development of the serious Cuban-American Democratic electorate in the near future.”

How soon this emerges depends on how quickly and effectively the Democrats can capitalize on their opportunity to influence the mighty Cuban-American bloc–and Florida politics. Democrats have opened an office in Little Havana, deployed John Kerry, John Edwards and Spanish-speaking Teresa Heinz Kerry with increasing frequency, and launched three new Spanish-language ads critical of Bush’s travel restrictions on Cuban families. Some, however, believe that the Kerry campaign may suffer in Florida as a result of its late and insufficient attention to the Latino vote. According to several Democratic strategists I interviewed in Florida, what National Council of La Raza’s Raul Yzaguirre called in an April letter a “remarkable and unacceptable absence of Latinos” in the Kerry campaign could weaken the Democrat in Miami-Dade, Broward and other heavily Latino counties.

Regardless, the split in the Cuban family has a life that will extend beyond November. “I have not the slightest doubt that the issue of the family will supersede the issue of the embargo,” says Silvia Wilhelm of the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights, a coalition of Cuban-Americans whose stated mission is “to preserve the integrity of the Cuban family and work to defeat those who want to divide it.” Wilhelm and her organization have even launched frontal attacks against the once-invincible crown prince of the Cuban-American dynasty, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who aspires to fill the giant shoes of his father, Don Rafael, the revered founder of the South Florida dynasty that thrived on anti-Castro and pro-embargo passions.

It was an act of defiance without precedent in the hallowed political history of Little Havana: Bearing the flags of Cuba and the United States and chanting “Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, tear down this wall that separates families,” several hundred protesters, who, as if campaigning to reform a corrupt ancient church, also bore placards saying The Family Is Sacred, stormed Diaz-Balart’s offices. Whether one calls it sinful or saintly, such political behavior marks a radical change in a land where only weeks ago, an ecstatic crowd of around fifty Cuban-American hard-liners greeted three men convicted of terrorist activities, including a plot to assassinate Castro in Panama in 2000. The men had been pardoned, with no apparent justification, by the outgoing Panamanian president, a decision that the White House chose not to protest. Their well-wishers included politicos affiliated with Don Rafael’s dynasty.

Holding court from the head of a table at the storied Versailles Restaurant on Calle Ocho, Don Rafael tells his small audience that nothing will come of nothing in the current crisis of the Cuban family, a crisis that many believe is, in fact, fast weakening the grip on power of the patriarch and his political progeny. “The idea that there are generational differences [among Cubans] is a lie. Una mentira total,” he said, a total lie. Questions about polls like those conducted by pre-eminent Latino pollster Sergio Bendixen, pointing to strong slippage among younger Cuban-American voters, drew similar Lear-like ire. As if denouncing insurgents on the verge of revolution, the aging patriarch stood up and said at the height of his cracking voice, “These people trying to criticize Bush over the family policy haven’t been able to affect the essence of the family–and they won’t.”

Agree or disagree with Diaz-Balart, one cannot but sit in awe of the deep, intimate intermingling of the personal and the political within the Cuban family (writ small and large): Diaz-Balart is Fidel Castro’s former brother-in-law and his Congressmen sons, Lincoln and Mario, are dedicated to fighting the policies of their first uncle, the Comunista. Don Rafael’s sister, Mirta, married Castro and bore his first son, Fidelito, after the young Rafael introduced her to Fidel when the two elite Cuban men attended law school in Havana.

Recently at Versailles, a Diaz-Balart-sponsored reception honored Republican senatorial candidate Bill McCollum, in yet another indication that the Cubanoamericano body politic is splintering. The Diaz-Balarts backed McCollum, who speaks even less español than Bush or Kerry, over Mel Martinez, a former Cuban refugee. George and Jeb and Lincoln and Mario and their longtime ally Ileana Ros-Lehtinen all support the controversial family travel policy, but were on different sides of the nasty fight between Martinez (who had the Bushes’ backing) and McCollum. McCollum, the eventual loser of the race, told me at Versailles, between handshakes and “Yo quiero su voto(s),” that Martinez was “out of touch” on family issues affecting Cuban-Americans. But McCollum and the Diaz-Balarts appear to be even more out of touch, as McCollum won less than 2 percent of the Cuban-American vote in his losing bid.

Many I interviewed, like longtime analyst and writer Max Castro, told me that nothing, not ideology, not Cuba policy, nothing but the threat of an alternative Cuban power base being established on orders of Karl Rove and Jeb Bush is driving the internal Republicano family feud in Florida. The Bushes, it appears, were hedging their bets against a Diaz-Balart backlash by backing the supposedly “more moderate” Martinez, who has amped up his pro-embargo rhetoric since running for the Senate seat.

The Diaz-Balart dynasty will be the biggest loser in these feuds if Martinez wins the Senate race against Democratic candidate Betty Castor. Castor and Martinez are in a dead heat in their race, in which the Cuban-American vote will be definitive. If he wins, Martinez will become the highest-ranking Cuban-American politico in the land overnight. It’s not insignificant that his base is in hurricane-racked Orlando and central Florida, several hours north of the historic South Florida citadel where the Diaz-Balarts are also under siege from the relentless tide of post-1980s Cuban migration.

Mapping out the contested new political geography of Cuban Florida are several surveys and polls, including polls by Bendixen and a July survey of Miami-Dade Cubans by the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project (SVREP). According to the SVREP survey, 76 percent of those Cubans arriving in Miami before 1980 support Bush. Bush support is strongest among older, less-educated voters, who make up the base of the Diaz-Balart embargo-backers; but as we move down the age and departure-from-Cuba ladder, the SVREP survey corroborates one of Karl Rove’s worst nightmares: Cubans today are less inclined to support Bush, and they care about issues beyond the embargo. “Cubans are rapidly moving away from the slavish desire to subordinate their entire agenda to Cuba politics,” says SVREP head Antonio Gonzalez, a longtime student of Latino politics in Florida. “If you take out the embargo, Cubans look more like liberal Democrats, like Kerry voters,” he says.

Some among the old guard, like radical right Radio Mambi talk-show host Antonio Llano Montes (who told me, “If I had the button to the nuclear bomb to drop on Cuba, I would push it”), explain the polls by making a distinction between “economic migrants” and “political refugees,” a distinction Silvia Wilhelm finds dehumanizing at best. “A small minority of very powerful, very rich and mostly old Cubanos has kept us divided for their own benefit based on outdated notions of good and bad Cubans,” says Wilhelm, adding, “That’s easy for them to do because the generation that left in the 1960s and ’70s didn’t leave family behind [in Cuba]. You see a change of perspective among those arriving from the late ’70s to the present. We will see more funerals [of elderly Cubans] soon, and then you’ll see the changes.”

Whether or not Florida stays Republican red, Cubans like Tessie Aral are committed to helping others see the kind of red that Joe Garcia and many others predict. Aral, a 47-year-old single mom and partner in a travel agency, is willing to both brave the wrath of the Diaz-Balarts and break with family and political tradition. She and other very hot and very bothered GOPers formed Cuban-American Republicans for Kerry, a group that came together shortly after the May announcement of travel restrictions. Prior to 2004, Aral voted for Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and backed embargista politics until George W. “woke” her up about the futility of the old ways. “I’ve been watching the Rafael Diaz-Balarts, the Lincoln Diaz-Balarts make policy toward Cuba for decades, and they have brought about no change on the island whatsoever,” says Aral, adding, “Bush doesn’t know what he’s doing either.”

At a meeting of several groups opposed to the Bush restrictions, Aral’s 14-year-old, Erika, watches her mom rail against the dynasty, the patriarchs and the politics of the Cuban-American past and reflects on the meaning of her own battles with Bush supporters on the once uncontested playground of her Christian school. “There are more pro-Bush students at my school, but there are lots of us who don’t agree, and we’re speaking out more,” she says.

Though the Martinez victory, the Bush brothers’ high-visibility hurricane-response photo-ops and some polls appear to give Bush a slight advantage over Kerry in Florida, the future of Republicans here will remain in the eye of another fast-growing storm. With the intensity of future political hurricanes hitting the crumbling Republican ramparts along the faux Spanish-style walls and streets of Colonial Calle Ocho, the confident, passionate stare of Erika Aral bodes ill for right-wing Miami. “I don’t like Castro, but I don’t like Bush either, because he’s telling us we can’t go see our cousins at least once a year like we used to–and that’s not right,” says Erika, who adds, “Bush stinks. That’s why I’m going to sign up as a Democrat when I turn 18.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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