MIAMI–Hispanics are all Democrats. Ask anyone–anyone except Hispanics, that is. For their part, they seem blissfully unaware that they are supposed to be loyal Democrats. While 72 percent of Hispanics voted for President Clinton in 1996, the figure dropped to 62 percent for Al Gore in 2000, and to 54 percent for John Kerry last year. Oh yeah, and Cuban Americans are all supposed to be right-wing Republicans. But while President Bush made gains among Hispanics in the last election, his support among Cubans in Miami is headed in the opposite direction: After winning 82 percent in 2000, his support fell to 77 percent in 2004.
The drop in the Cuban vote matched the predictions of several pre-election polls, which suggested that Cubans arriving after 1980 are distinctly more liberal than those who arrived before. This means that as first-generation exiles die off, the relative trend among Cuban-American voters could head away from the GOP.
Such a shift would not have to be large to be important. Because the Cuban community is now overwhelmingly Republican, a five percent drop in support may seem trivial. But consider that Florida’s 600,000 Cuban voters make up almost six percent of that tight battleground state’s electorate.
The myth of the “right-wing” Cuban
The alliance between Cuban exiles in Miami and the Republican party is actually something of an historical anomaly. Among the three major parties in pre-revolutionary Cuba–the Ortodoxos, the Autenticos, and the Communist party precursor Partido Socialista Popular–there was very little ideological difference. They were all of a welfare state social-democratic persuasion. Cuba’s Constitution of 1940, one of the most progressive of its day, reflected this liberal consensus through guaranteed health care, free education and extensive labor rights.
Fleeing to the United States after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, Cubans would find a natural ideological home in the Democratic party. In fact, many prominent Cuban Republicans are former Democrats. Among these are three members of Miami’s congressional delegation–Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen–as well as Miami mayor Manny Diaz. Even as Republicans, Cuban-American representatives still exhibit their liberal roots. Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart were among the few Republicans in Congress who refused to sign Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America in 1995. They also voted against NAFTA, as well as the 1996 welfare and immigration reform acts.
Another area in which the political ambivalence of Cubans Americans is visible is in their political donations. A study by the Center for Responsive Politics looking at federal campaign contributions by Cuban Americans from 1979 to 2000 found that the two parties shared their contributions almost evenly, with the Democratic party taking a slight edge. The study also found a marked difference between contributions at the congressional level–which went 56 percent to Democrats–and the presidential level, where nearly 70 percent of the money went to Republican candidates.
Why do Cubans vote Republican?
Cuban-Americans may largely vote Republican, but they are not down-the-line ideological conservatives. This last fact begs the question, why do Cubans vote Republican?
Professor Dario Moreno of Florida International University, an expert on Cuban-American politics, says the conventional wisdom is that Cubans perceive the Democratic party as less anti-Castro, and less supportive of human rights in Cuba, than the GOP. What led them to that conclusion? Moreno ticks off three factors: President Kennedy’s decision to not give air support to the Bay of Pigs invasion, President Carter’s 1978 dialogue with the Castro regime, and the Clinton administration’s handling of the Elián Gonzalez affair.
“Cubans are Republicans because Democrats dropped the ball,” says Rafael Bejar, a Cuban-American Republican political consultant in Miami. “With President Kennedy there was an opportunity to take out Castro and they dropped the ball–and it wasn’t just dropping the ball, it was a betrayal.” If things had gone differently, Bejar says, Cubans would be split more evenly between the two parties. “Cubans on social policy are actually pretty progressive,” he says. “Where they are hard-liners is on foreign policy, and their foreign policy is completely dictated by their personal experience with what happened in Cuba.”
Young Cubans who might have outgrown their parents’ anti-Democrat bias saw that bias justified by President Clinton. “What Elian did was that it brought in a younger group of Cubans. Up until that point [the betrayals] had been hearsay. But with Elian they saw it; they felt it.”
A marriage of convenience
“The other reason, which is less cited, for Cuban American’s loyalty to the Republican party,” Moreno says, “is that when Cuban-Americans arrived in the United States, specifically in Miami-Dade County, the Republican party was basically nonexistent, it was an empty shell, and the Republican party thus became the instrument of Cuban-American empowerment.”
Miami was a Democratic stronghold and Cubans found it difficult to crack into the party, which was controlled by natives. The Republican party, however, was available for Cubans to use to fight their way into office, just as, Moreno says, “the empty Democratic Party in Boston became the tool for Irish-American empowerment, and the Republican party in places like New Haven and New York became the instrument for Italian-American ethnic empowerment.” There is nothing ideological about this type of party allegiance, Moreno says, “it is utilitarian.”
Not that the national Republican party wasn’t happy about this marriage of convenience. They share, after all, the anti-Communist values of Florida’s Cubans, and the GOP has been, more or less, a solid supporter of the Cuban embargo — sort of a litmus test for most Cuban exiles.
On the same issues, Democrats have blown their chance to make common cause. During the election, both Howard Dean and John Kerry announced their support of the embargo, though both had long records showing they had always opposed it. Indeed, every serious presidential contender since the 1960s has professed fealty to the embargo policy, only Republicans have done so more convincingly. Yet, Republican support for the embargo is more than a little curious. The GOP is of course the pro-business party, and many of its members are perfectly comfortable with the idea of unfettered trade relations with China and Vietnam. In fact, much of the opposition to the Cuba embargo in Congress comes from Republicans, especially those representing Midwestern farm states. This might explain why Cuban American contributions favor Democrats at the congressional level.
Life after Castro
In reality, the Cuban-American voting bloc in Miami is not “right-wing” or even conservative. These Americans simply subordinate all other considerations to the paramount issue of anti-Castroism. Cuban Americans are basically a single-issue constituency.
Presumably, however, anti-Castroism will some day disappear as an issue when Castro finally dies. Nature will also catch up with the aging first generation of exiles that make up the bulk of the GOP’s support among Cuban Americans. Taking their place will be younger U.S.-born Cuban-Americans and recent exiles who have weaker tie to the Republican party and are less wedded to Cuba as an electoral issue.
Andres Palómo Fernandez voted for John Kerry in 2004. He is a Cuban-American insurance adjustor who came to Miami in 1981. Back home, he was active in the then-banned Catholic Church, and his father and brother served long prison sentences for political activities against the Castro regime. When he arrived, Palómo says he was surprised to find how unpopular Jimmy Carter was among his fellow exiles. He says he has always “greatly sympathized with the Democratic party, especially on social aspects,” and believes many Cubans of his generation think the same way.
The strong support the GOP enjoys is not so strange, Palómo argues, when you consider its source. “The greatest economic and political power of Cubans in Miami today is that of the first exiles that arrived, and many of those were part of the Batista regime,” he says, referring to the pro-American dictatorship that Castro overthrew.
The future of Cubans within the conservative movement depends in large part on how Castro’s rule ends, who is president when it happens, and what they do about it, says Bejar. “The Cuban-Republican coalition will definitely erode,” he says, “the question is to what extent.”
To get an idea of what a Cuban-American community without Castro might look like, Bejar suggests a look to Tampa. “The Cubans there for the most part are more inclined to speak English than Spanish, unlike those in Miami,” he says. Also unlike Miami, he adds, Tampa has no regular influx of arrivals to keep the language alive and news of intrigue on the island coming in. According to Bejar, Tampa Cubans are also less likely to listen to Spanish-language media.
“Tampeños don’t have it in their face as much–the evil that Castro does,” and therefore are not as fixated on the Cuba issue. The political result of these factors, he says, is that Cuban-American Tampeños are more Democratic and less Republican than their Miamense brethren, which they are, typically.
“Cubans will become more liberal on foreign policy as the saliency of the Cuba issue lessens,” Moreno agrees. He believes, however, that Cubans will remain solidly Republican even after Castro. “I think they will become more conservative on economic policy and more conservative on social policies as they assimilate more into the mainstream of the conservative and Republican movements.”
Moreno argues that the drop in support President Bush saw among Cubans last year is not as dramatic as it appears because the support he received in 2000 was inflated by Cuban anger at the Clinton administration over the Elián Gonzalez affair. He also denies the notion that the younger generation is more liberal. A poll of 409 college students in Miami that Moreno conducted last year showed that 82 percent of Cuban Americans in the sample supported President Bush.
“Younger Cuban-Americans are probably more conservative in a traditional sense than their parents,” Moreno says. “Cuba is less important to them, but conservative values like lower taxes, anti-gun control–that part of the conservative agenda–tends to be better entrenched among younger Cubans than older Cubans.”
While Cuban allegiance to the conservative movement after Castro may be open to speculation, the immediate future is not. “The race for U.S. Senate is telling of the future direction of the parties,” Moreno says of last year’s contest for the seat left open by Bob Graham. “The Democratic Cuban candidate got seven percent of his party’s vote, while the Republican Cuban got 42 percent of his party’s vote, won the nomination, and went on to win the Senate seat.”
Moreno points out that after the 2004 election, for the first time in its history, Miami-Dade County has a Republican mayor. Not surprisingly, he is Cuban. Also for the first time there are Republican majorities on the county commission and the school board, majorities in which Cubans are well represented.
“Tip O’Neill used to say that all politics is local,” Moreno says. “But there are no Hispanics on the Democratic executive committee in Miami-Dade County. That speaks volumes.”
Bejar agrees: “The Miami-Dade County delegation to the state legislature is overwhelmingly Republican and overwhelmingly Cuban–I cannot name one Cuban Democrat. If the Democrats were making inroads, there would be a Cuban Democratic state representative, and there’s not.”
In fact, there is only one Cuban Democratic state representative in the Florida legislature–and he’s from Tampa.
Jerry Brito is a law student, writer, and editor of the online magazine Brainwash, a publication of the America’s Future Foundation.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire