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

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).

Eventually, the Bush administration ran out of red meat left to throw at the exile voter, and so it invited its favored Cuban dissidents to the White House (but not those who criticized U.S. policies), ordered up a new Commission to recommend more of the same, and scheduled plenty of high level speechifying. When Castro fell ill, the Bush administration insisted that a family succession was out of the question, both because we wouldn't allow it and because the Cuban people the U.S. had supposedly worked so hard to empower wouldn't stand for it.

None of this had any appreciable effect on Havana except to harden it. During Bush's two terms, Fidel Castro became more belligerent, authorities locked up 75 dissidents that Cuban state prosecutors claimed were collaborating with a hostile foreign power (the U.S.), and Castro even made new friends. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez happily came under Castro's tutelage and to his aid. Canada, China, Brazil, Vietnam, and Spain deepened trade ties, and Cuba restored relations with every last country in the Western Hemisphere save one -- us. The United Nations General Assembly voted again and again and again to condemn the U.S. embargo of Cuba, with only Israel and one or two small islands in the Pacific standing with the United States. Cubans who had come to rely on income generated from Americans' and others' visits to the island felt the pinch, and Castro cut back many of the emergency reforms he had reluctantly supported in the 1990s. When Raul Castro took over for his ailing brother in 2006, he slowly began to embrace a more market-based economy, not because of the U.S. embargo, but because, he admitted, the Cuban model simply wasn't sustainable.

By the time President Obama took office, the Castros had outlived -- and outruled -- ten U.S. presidents.  There was little use in him dishing out hard-line red meat -- only the old guard exiles really wanted it and they would never vote for a Democrat, particularly one who said he saw no reason not to talk to Raul Castro (he has since found reasons, predictably, not to do so). So, then-candidate Obama worked to cultivate Cuban American voters who don't want to isolate friends and relatives on the island. Obama jeered at the tough talk with no results and offered real action: as president, he would lift all restrictions on family travel and remittances to Cuba.

Once elected, Obama came through on his promise, and later stood against a Congressional Republican effort to reinstate the draconian restrictions (one two-week visit to nuclear family only every three years, with no humanitarian exceptions allowed) at the end of last year. Obama's defense of his reforms suggests his team believes they've picked the right strategy. But given Romney's expected win, it begs the question, who really has the Cuban American vote?

It's a trick question, actually. A generic Republican could still handily take the Cuban American vote in Florida, because the electorate is still largely older, loyally Republican, and hard-line toward Cuba. But Obama doesn't need the whole Cuban American vote; he just needs a few more percentage points than, say, John Kerry won in 2004. He got them in 2008 and won the state by 200,000 votes, so Cuban Americans didn't actually figure as prominently as they have in previous elections. Unfortunately for Romney, all the hard-lining in the world probably won't win him any more Cuban American votes than a Republican would normally get, and his stance on immigration is likely to hurt him with the bigger population of non-Cuban American latinos. (Cubans get unparalleled access to the United States, so immigration isn't such a big issue for them.)

Yet, while Obama aimed for the center with his Cuba travel policies, many Cuban American moderates still don't vote, meaning that the average Cuban American voter is more conservative than the average Cuban American. That may convince the Obama team to lean further to the right -- where there's already little room left. But that would be a mistake, as conservative Cuban Americans aren't in play for Democrats. With a little more vision and courage -- offer an unapologetic engagement with the people of Cuba, in which all Americans could equally participate, for instance -- and he could inspire more of the gettable moderates to get out there this time around and vote. That would do a lot more than just bring Obama a few extra votes in Florida -- it would accelerate a gradual transformation in the politics of Cuban Americans, and thus the policies of the U.S. toward Cuba, away from the hardliners and toward the growing moderates. Romney may do well with the hard-liners this week, but that group and their coveted embargo might not last.