Whether Bush or Gore actually won the election in Florida in 2000, the Cuban American vote will have influenced the result. Most Cuban Americans in Florida are staunch Republicans, led at its core by the generally affluent exile community that fled the island when Castro came to power in 1959. About 400,000 of the 3 million Republicans in Florida are Hispanic, and most are of Cuban descent, living in Miami’s exile neighbourhoods, Hialeah and Little Havana.
Republican candidates know tapping into this pool will give them a real advantage in the state, and to do so they compete to parade their anti-Castro credentials. In Florida last week, Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee courted the Cuban American vote by downplaying their tough-on-immigration stance and expressing their support for Cuba’s continued isolation. The clear winner of the Cuban Americans’ affections, however, was ex-soldier and anti-Communist John McCain, who won the Florida primary this week. He did so by reminding the exile community that he was committed to fighting for Cuban freedom as a pilot during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and promising a continued hard-line stance towards Castro.
Any consideration of loosening the screws on the embargo brings loud protests from Miami, where Florida Cubans wield considerable influence and stubbornly insist on stonewalling Cuba. As one of the most successful immigrant groups in the US, their clout come not only from sheer numbers but from politicians and business leaders from a local to a national level.
They tend to view any discussion of easing the blockade as a betrayal to Washington’s supposed commitment to Cuba’s freedom, and in doing so do not realise that they are only making life difficult for Cubans, who under their country’s system lack the mechanism to put pressure on the government, which is the primary purpose of economic isolation. Since Bush came to power the embargo has been tightened several times, with no success in its goals, which flip-flop between destabilising Castro and encouraging democracy in the country.
The last time around, in 2003, when Bush was beginning his campaign for re-election, I was in Miami to conduct anthropology fieldwork among Cuban Americans. The day I arrived in Little Havana, an open letter to Bush from a Cuban American congressman appeared in the Miami Herald newspaper, written in response to rumours that he might change his Cuba policy. The message was clear: “If you ease the embargo, you can forget my support. And the support of my friends.” This would mean the loss of a large Republican power base, and one which is beginning to splinter; anti-Castro exiles feel Bush has not been strict enough, while younger Cuban Americans and those born in the US might feel time is right for a change.
Cuban Americans’ voting practice sets them apart from other Hispanic communities in the US, who tend to vote Democrat due to their liberal stance on immigration. Many Cuban Americans switched to the Republican party in 1962, disgusted with Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco, and have stayed with the GOP through Reagan’s anti-communist rhetoric and the party’s no-tolerance policy towards Castro. But this stance is not exclusive to the Republican party- Clinton successfully won many Cubans over by signing the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, tightening the embargo and attempting to impose penalties on third parties who trade with Cuba. The Act has been condemned by the World Trade Organization and is illegal under international law.
For all the threats and promises bandied back and forth by the exile community and Washington, nothing much changes. It is plain to see that the blockade, after 45 years, is not achieving its goals. It only evokes international sympathy for the regime which the leader then exploits, much like Saddam Hussein did when the humanitarian disaster caused by UN sanctions in Iraq garnered enough sympathy to obscure the fact that he was not complying with UN inspections, committing human rights abuses, and generally still up to his old tricks.
Economic embargos are a blunt instrument which punish the population, not the government. They only work when leaders are vulnerable to pressure from its people, which is simply not the case in most regimes to which it is applied. In the case of Cuba, it is an all-purpose political tool for both sides: the US uses it show voters it is doing something to promote freedom in Cuba, and Castro uses it blame the country’s economic woes on the US, which is certainly not the only reason for its problems.
Regardless of how they choose to vote, Cuban Americans need to use their influence to strike while the iron is hot. They could help shape policy at a crucial moment when the momentum of Castro’s possible departure could bring about positive changes for people on the island. The younger generation of Florida Cubans need to use their numbers to push for a more constructive method of helping their Cuban counterparts. Economics and human rights commentators have said that opening up trade would benefit the Cuban people economically and speed up Castro’s departure, removing his last scapegoat for Cuba’s problems. It is also safe to say that Cuba no longer poses any nuclear threat – the strategic purpose of political isolation has long since expired.
As the oldest generation of hard-line Cuban exiles gives way to a younger and more open one, the political landscape of Florida is changing. The power base in Florida is shifting, with a large number of non-Cuban Hispanics settling in the area who have Democrat sympathies- the Republican party may no longer take Florida’s votes for granted. American-born Cubans (ABCs) need to use this chance to support engagement with Cuba if they really want to help ‘free’ its people.
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This post was written by Alexa Van Sickle