Close (but no Cigar?)

The U.S. can’t seem to get rid of Castro, but Cubans could end up canning George Bush.

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The United States hasn’t had much luck, over five decades, in changing the political leadership in Cuba; Cubans, though, might well hold the key to this year’s U.S. presidential election.

And, yes, that means Florida might swing the election again. To explain:
Florida — Miami in particular — is home to 850,000 Cubans and Cuban-Americans, half of whom are registered voters. As we know, unlike most Latinos, they generally vote Republican, because they like the hawkish GOP line on Castro. They certainly went for Bush in a big way in 2000. A quarter of a million more Cuban-Americans chose Bush than Gore, and the Cuban community aggressively–in some cases, physically–protested the recount in the state, where 537 ballots–and the good offices of the U.S. Supreme Court–decided the presidency.

Jeb Bush, Florida’s governor, has made a point of cultivating the Cuban community, and the community has responded in kind. But there are signs that his brother, the president, has upset Cubans by being — as they see it — soft on Castro. (Of course, a lot of Cubans in Florida won’t be satisfied with anything short of military invasion and regime change. Bush has tightened the flow of U.S. tourism and business to Cuba to further isolate Castro; but that’s clearly not enough.)

Many Cubans who were angry that Clinton returned Elian Gonzalez to relatives in Cuba are now ticked off that Bush left Fidel Castro in power even as he drove Saddam Hussein from Baghdad. More than 30 percent of Cubans polled recently by Univision disapproved of Bush’s handling of Castro.

It’s not as if there’s a major defection in the works (after all, is it realistic to think Kerry would be harder on Castro?). But there’s a definite sense that the Cuban vote is up for grabs in a way that it hasn’t been for years.

Kerry is beating Bush by 6 points in Florida, according to a poll done by the Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times. Of Cubans polled, 56 percent favor Bush — a big drop from the 81 percent who voted for him four years ago.

For Cuban exiles, Castro’s takeover, in 1959, is a wound that just won’t heal. In the current New Yorker, William Finnegan describes the Miami’s “wormholes in time”:

You’ll be driving along a Miami freeway in 2004, listening to Radio Mambí-that’s a big Spanish-language talk station-and suddenly you’ll be in Cuba, 1961. Callers will be arguing bitterly about Che Guevara’s misunderstanding of the sugar industry. An old man will start telling the story of his brother’s violent death, at the hands of neighborhood militants, in Santiago de Cuba. He’ll describe every detail, until you can taste the day. Then he’ll start sobbing. The silence around his voice will grow while he tries to go on. He has wept every night in the decades since his brother’s death, he says, and he prays to God that justice will someday be done … This sort of thing is just electrifying to hear, and completely horrifying, but it’s also normal, everyday Miami.

A popular salsa tune on Miami airwaves sings of Bush’s betrayal of recent refugees. U.S. authorities allowed 69 percent of 25,000 Cuban refugees to stay in this country in 2002, but media images of boat exiles turned away from the Florida coast last year are causing anger.

It doesn’t help Bush that the Treasury Department is trying to put limits on the $1 billion that Cubans send annually to their families still living on the island.

The University of Florida’s Paolo Spadoni describes in the Orlando Sentinel the mixed message this sends:

At a time when the Bush administration is attempting to woo Cuban voters leading up to the presidential election, why would it take steps to cut off this aid? The idea of restricting money transfers could reflect an increasing frustration in Washington with the ironic results of the Cuban embargo.

The most contradictory element of the embargo is the establishment of a dual approach that severely restricts travel and financial transactions with respect to Cuba by American citizens of non-Cuban descent while granting Cuban-Americans special exemptions for family-related visits to the island and remittances. While U.S. policy was originally conceived as a way to increase economic pressure on the Castro government (and eventually hasten its demise) by stemming the flow of hard currency reaching Cuba, this “two-track” policy ended up throwing a lifeline to the same government it was supposed to undermine.

Harvard government professor Jorge Domínguez angered conservative Cuban leaders when he suggested that Bush and Castro, despite their mutual vitriol, are allied on immigration policy, the drug war, and trade. Last month Castro accused Bush at least twice of trying to assassinate him to please Cuban exiles. On the other hand, food exports to Cuba have grown by 80 percent in the past year, making Cuba the 35th top U.S. agriculture market.

Cubans first flocked en masse to the United States during the 1959 revolution. Hard as it is to believe now, Cubans initially leaned Democratic because of the party’s support for civil rights, social welfare programs, and Cuban refugee assistance. But half of the island’s outflow to the U.S. mainland came after 1980, just as Ronald Reagan’s anti-Communist crusade was drawing exiles to the GOP. Jeb Bush cemented the party’s alliance with Cuban émigrés as chair, beginning in 1984, of the Miami-Dade Republican Party. Sixty-eight percent of Cuban-Americans were registered Republicans in 1988, an increase of 19 percent from 1979, a jump credited largely to Jeb’s shrewd courting of Cuban politicians. He recognized early that harnessing the political clout of Cuban exiles would pay off as the community expanded, and he was right.

The Bush administration made more steps to appeal to this constituency, appointing the first Cuban-American, former HUD secretary Mel Martinez, to his Cabinet.

Jeb Bush, a fluent Spanish speaker whose wife grew up in a small Mexican town, is very popular with Florida’s Cubans. But, as Finnegan explains, their support isn’t a given even for him:

The Cuban exiles are not … just another constituency for Jeb Bush. Their pathos, their myopia, and his surprisingly deep involvement in their affairs-not to mention his own Presidential ambitions-make for an unusually delicate, powerful alliance.

The views of Florida’s two Cuban-American Members of Congress Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen are unpredictable, for example. They oppose Castro but also NAFTA. Finnegan explains:

These are not, in other words, your grandfather’s right-wingers. Indeed, Diaz-Balart told me that his grandparents were, back in Cuba, great admirers of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Bill Clinton won in 1996 with help from Cubans in Florida, one-third of whom voted for him. Democrats reason that Kerry could tie up the state if he grabs at least that share of the Cuban vote. They’re hoping he can capitalize on Bush’s failure to establish democracy in Cuba, and to provide Cuban-Americans with jobs, and on the president’s unpopular cuts for school and student loan funds. The Massachusetts senator’s strategy will reportedly focus on exactly these issues. And he’s been making the mandatory anti-Castro noises, too. He recently described Cuba to a Miami reporter as a “Stalinist, dictatorial state”

For these and other reasons, Florida, in the words of Karl Rove, is likely to be “ground zero” for the November election. Again.


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