The Cuban Calculus

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, June 25, 2004)


In the 2000 presidential election, Cuban exiles in Florida favored George W. Bush over Al Gore by more than 250,000 votes, at a ratio of about 4-to-1. Considering only 537 votes decided the election, Bush has reason to be grateful to Florida’s Cuban-Americans.

But four years later, the Cuban vote is not as solidly behind him. As Ron Fournier of the Associated Press reported earlier this month:

“South Florida’s Cuban-American community of about 600,000 is divided over the Bush administration’s policies, with some hard-line exiles complaining that Bush has failed to take a tougher stance against Castro. A younger generation of Cubans who were born in the United States – or raised here most of their lives – are more likely to support engagement with Cuba. They are not knee-jerk Republicans like their parents.”

And it appears Bush might further divide that Cuban-American community with a series of new restrictions that take effect at the end of June.

While exiles can currently visit relatives in Cuba once a year, the new rules limit visits to once every three years and cap the trips at 14 days. They will only be allowed to visit immediate family members (as opposed to cousins or uncles), and can spend only $50 a day in Cuba (instead of the current $167 threshold).

Also, the rules limit what items Cuban-Americans can send back to the island. Packages can no longer include clothing, veterinary medicine, soap-making equipment, seeds or personal hygiene items. Money can only be sent to immediate family members.

Bush’s policies come after he appointed a panel to consider tighter sanctions against Fidel Castro’s leadership in Cuba, which has been subject to a U.S. trade embargo since 1962. The idea was to strengthen Cuban-American support for the president but, as Joe Garcia of the politically powerful Cuban American National Foundation told the New York Times, the move will instead anger less-hard-line exiles:

“You can’t send underwear or soap. Who wrote this? It almost seems like something someone would write to make the policy look absurd.

“I don’t know if we are standing on strong moral ground here. Someone who has been as pro-family as President Bush should not be affecting family relationships between exiles and Cubans on the islands.”

Maria Aral, a Cuban-American and a Republican, told Reuters the new rules were enough to make her switch her vote Nov. 2:

“How can you tell a person that because they left a child or parent behind that they can’t go and visit them? How inhumane can you be?”

If the Cuban vote does split, that could have dire consequences for Bush in a closely divided Florida that has two more electoral votes than last time around.

As William Finnegan wrote in the March New Yorker, there is a generational split among exiles when it comes to their stance on taking a “hard-line” against Castro:

“For many years, polls have shown that exiles’ attitudes toward Castro are becoming more moderate. The usual explanation is that the American-born children of the first generation of exiles, known as los historicos, are less bitter than their parents, and are assimilating. In fact, though, a startlingly high percentage of young Cuban-Americans-more than any other age group-say they would like to see an American military invasion of the island.

“Finer-grained polling shows that it isn’t the children of los historicos who would prefer a policy of reconciliation-who would like, for instance, to see the trade embargo relaxed or repealed. It is, rather, more recent arrivals from Cuba.”

If Bush was counting on wooing those younger voters with his new travel and trade restrictions, the obvious problem is that more recent arrivals are not U.S. citizens, and are therefore ineligible to vote.

Also, as Finnegan points out, the trend of Cuban-Americans voting didn’t emerge until the Reagan years. In 1979, 10 percent more exiles identified as Democrats than Republicans, but only a quarter of Cuban-American voters were registered Democrats by 1988. The exile community – like most Hispanic voters – still generally sides with the Democrats on social issues, so any disaffection with Bush’s foreign policy provides an opportunity for John Kerry to win them back. As Ann Louise Bardach argued in Slate months before Bush announced his travel restrictions, they give Kerry the issue he needs, provided he’s willing to use it:

“This would be a boon for John Kerry, who could rebuke Bush for starving and dividing Cuban families. That is, if Kerry can finally offer a coherent, consistent-and ultimately more popular-policy on Cuba than Bush.”

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