Election Day 2008

A letter from Florida

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, but the special election to be held here next Tuesday has many people wondering if the laws of physics and politics have been temporarily conjoined. On Election Day, Florida’s Cuban Americans will go to the polls twice—once to vote for America’s next president, and again to determine Cuba’s.

The so-called elecciónextraordinaria y democracia in absentia is the brainchild of Jorge Menos Canosa, a prosperous leader of the Cuban expatriate community in Miami and, like most of his countrymen who arrived in Florida after the revolution, a fierce opponent of the Castro regime. He gained prominence in 1971 when he flew a blimp festooned with anti-Castro slogans over a soccer game outside Havana. He barely eluded the Cuban MiG fighters that were scrambled to shoot him down.

As he told TheMiami Herald last summer, the idea of holding Cuba’s first democratic election—in the United States—came to him “between three and four in the morning,” during a “very robust” night of celebrating following the death of Ramon Castro, Fidel’s younger brother, who succeeded Fidel after his recent death.

“We were sitting around discussing what should happen, when it came to us—why leave it to them?” Canosa told a visitor recently, while sitting on the deck of his expansive home overlooking the Everglades, chewing on an unlit (Dominican) Montecristo cigar. “To be candid: What do they know at this point? They’ve been living in a totalitarian dictatorship since 1959,” he said. “Here in Florida, we have abundant experience with democracy. We know how to run elections. Okay, in 2000, a Democrat almost won. But,” he added, lighting the cigar, “as you saw, we took care of that.”

Canosa, whose name appears on the ballot, discounts personal ambition. “I’m eighty-one,” he said. “I’m wealthy. I’m not so eager to live in some porque­ría—roughly, dump—“of a presidential ‘palace’ that hasn’t had new plumbing since the ’50s. But maybe it’s time to give something back. Like my American grandchildren would say, Whatever. Anyway, I’m on the ballot. But there are other candidates to choose from.”

Seventeen other candidates, to be precise. According to the latest poll, the front-runner is Jaime Perfecto Jiménez, a billionaire duty-free entrepreneur, who has vowed if elected to personally execute all associates of Fidel and Ramon Castro. (“With my own pistol.”)

At the other end of the spectrum is Fulminacio García y López, who has pledged to increase the daily minimum wage in Cuba to $1 a day, up from thirty cents. Doctors, engineers, and lawyers would get salary increases to $5 a day, and a chicken on religious feast days.

Exactly how the winner might actually take office is unclear. Jiménez, who on weekends conducts military-style maneuvers with a brigade of like-minded compatriots in the Everglades, says he has an army “equipped and ready to assert my presidency.” Canosa, for his part, has already been arrested and prosecuted several times for violating the Overthrow of Foreign Governments Act, but each time has been acquitted thanks to the ag‑ gressive tactics of his attorney, Roy Black, whose other clients have included William Kennedy Smith and Rush Limbaugh.

The present Cuban government, headed by Ramonito Castro y Castro, a grandson of Ramon, has been quite specific about what its reaction to a takeover bid would be: Castro y Castro has promised “apocalypse like never before.” His ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, has threatened to drive supertankers loaded with oil onto Floridian reefs, “turning imperialist beaches black from Key West to Cape Cod—maybe even to Nova Scotia, depending on the Gulf Stream.”

However it plays out, this election seems sure to change the political—and perhaps even demographic—contours of Florida. “In 1980, you had the Marielistas,” says Ramon Castanetas, a columnist for Cuba Libre, the influential Spanish-language weekly, recalling the mass exodus of Cubans to the United States. “Perhaps in 2008 we’ll have the Miamistas, going the other way, only in nicer boats.”

More than 800,000 Cuban Americans live in Florida, and most are Republicans. If enough of them decide to return to Cuba, Florida will turn from a “red”—or rojo—state to a “blue”—or azul—state. With Florida’s twenty-seven electoral votes at stake, this possibility has Republicans in Washington nervous, and Democrats watering at the mouth.

When Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was asked how she would respond, as president, if millions of Cuban Americans began to cross the Gulf Stream south, she said that she was “all in favor of more democracy for Cuba, as long as Dubai isn’t allowed to operate ports there.” Republican nominee Jeb Bush, meanwhile, denied Republican anxiety about a Floridian political Doppler shift from red to blue, declaring that most Cuban Americans would want to stay put once he, as president, enacted his plan to raise federal revenues by cutting income tax rates to zero percent.

In truth, the long-term impact of this extraordinary event on the Cuban American psyche is impossible to predict with any confidence. For the past fifty years, the Cuban expatriate community has had a bona fide devil (diablo) in Fidel Castro. Their hatred for Castro and Communism has been a dynamo of energy and, to mix metaphors, the glue that has bonded them together tightly over the years. Now that the devil is gone, whither will their hatred be directed; or, will their hatred simply wither?

Sociologists who have studied the hatred patterns within the Cuban community in the United States are of two minds; even three. Sonesta-Maria Osorio, a professor of animosity at Opa-Locka Community College, says, “To paraphrase Voltaire on religion, if Castro did not exist, the Cubans would have to invent him.” She speaks of a “duality [dualidad] within the Cuban soul. On the one hand, the placid, joyful temperament—the lover and enjoyer of life, of music and dancing, cigars, women, good food: the easy-goer. Then on the other hand, you have the quick-to-reach-for-the-machine-gun-or-machete-or-Russian- missile: the not-so-easy-goer. This is the Cuban in his totality and complexity. And truthfully, it can be very scary.”

Other social observers of the Cuban experience foresee, as one puts it, “a period of intense introspection, followed by a period of spectacular turmoil—lots of explosions, a new Baghdad—followed by a period of exhaustion and more introspection, followed by a period of heavy drinking, followed by a tremendous hangover.”

Looking out over the Everglades from his deck, producing a second cigar, Jorge Menos Canosa is philosophical. “I suppose it would be something to win,” he says. “To return to Havana after all these years, to stand on the balcony in the palace and address all the people in the square and say, ‘So, muchachos, muchachas, what was all that about?’ To hear the roar of the crowd. It wouldn’t be so bad after all. On the other hand,” he says, sipping a Bacardi and Coke, “it’s not so bad right here, even with the mosquitoes and the alligators and the Democrats.”