A Brief History of the Ludicrous, Doomed Politics of Florida Cuban Votes

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Republicans like Romney see hardline positions as essential, but Cuban American demographics may be changing, and the U.S.-Cuba relationship could change with it

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Mitt Romney at a Florida event with Cuban-American members of Congress Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Lincoln Diaz-Balart / Reuters

After Newt Gingrich's upset victory in the South Carolina primary, all eyes turned to the potentially game-changing primary in Florida, and to the famously large and organized Cuban American voting bloc, which could help make or break any of the Republican presidential hopefuls.  In a nod to the issue's expected resonance in Florida, both CNN debates in the state featured questions about Cuba, or more specifically, about Fidel Castro and how the candidates might handle news of his death. The leading candidates fell all over themselves: they couldn't wait for Castro to meet his maker; no, wait, he won't be so lucky -- he'll go to the other place; and if we could help Libya's Qaddafi get there, why not Castro? From the debate stage to the stump speech to the multi-point plans, the candidates rushed to prove their anti-Castro bona fides, and they hope, win the Cuban American vote.

Cuban Americans are expected to overwhelmingly support Mitt Romney in tonight's primary.  With the leading candidates' positions so similar, why would this community break for Romney, and what does it mean for a potential general election face-off between President Obama and Governor Romney?

First, a bit of history. Ever since the Clinton administration returned a little boy found at sea to his father in Cuba, the Cuban American community has been splintering between the old guard and the new guard, between Cubans who wanted to keep Elian Gonzalez in the U.S. more than to reunite him with his father and the Cubans who were mortified by the black eye the community gave itself in the standoff with the U.S. government. The community is increasingly split between Cubans who left the island decades ago under desperate circumstances, never went back, and vote religiously in U.S. elections, often based on U.S. policies toward Cuba; and those who've arrived in the past 20 years, are less interested in politics, less quick to seek U.S. citizenship or vote here, and are more interested in frequent contact with friends and family still on the island.

As the rift deepened, President Bush and Cuban American congressmen allied themselves with the old guard, dishing out more and more red meat to this reliable voter base. As Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a now-senior Cuban American lawmaker Jeb Bush helped get elected more than 20 years ago, noted in December, "Cuban Americans are the most loyal Republican voters and we could easily be said to be the only solid, dependable bloc of voters for the GOP." This is partly because the older generation is simply more ideologically in tune with the GOP. But it's also because the community's political leaders, nearly all hard-liners, are incredibly organized and know how to get out their vote. The voters who go for Mitt Romney are unlikely to do so because Romney moved them, but rather because local leaders like Ros-Lehtinen, who is now the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, once and current congressmen who are also Fidel Castro's first wife's nephews, urged support for Romney.

Over the years, garnering Cuban exile votes has meant seeking to isolate and antagonize Cuba diplomatically and financially, trying (or at least seeming to try) to foment opposition on the island, and limiting Americans' contacts with Cubans and Cuban culture. But, slowly, Americans have been waking up to the futility of this mission. (The Buena Vista Social Club and other Cuban artists who came to the U.S. in the late 1990's and early 2000s were a big hit around the country, a small but important moment of mutual respect between Americans and Cubans.) Still, President George W. Bush dutifully appointed a Presidential Commission to come up with a sweeping and unrealistic plan "for a Free Cuba," severely curtailed family, academic, cultural, and even religious travel to the island, and he quadrupled U.S. government funding to "hasten the transition" in Cuba, That aid has been riddled with problems, such as embezzlement, fraud, mismanagement, lack of transparency and, most of all, lack of any discernible results.

The Bush administration, in its continual effort to pander to its hard-line Cuban exile base in Florida, also puffed up charges of Cuban state sponsored terrorism and human trafficking, suspended biannual migration talks, kicked out several Cuban diplomats -- implying but not actually saying they were spies -- and appointed a number of hard-line Cuban Americans to key posts, including Otto Reich, Roger Noriega, Mauricio Tamargo, Salvador Lew, and Dan Fisk (he's not Cuban American but helped codify the embargo when he worked for Senator Jesse Helms).

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Anya Landau French blogs for The Havana Note and directs the U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation.

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