Obama gains with Cuban Americans, but effect on policy remains unclear

 

Mexico City

President Barack Obama won a historic share of Cuban American ballots in Florida this week, challenging the Republican Party's lock on a voting bloc that for decades has defined US policy toward Cuba and the Castro brothers.

For the past five administrations, the power of the Cuban American vote in the swing state and its passionate, hard-line anti-Castro legislators have strongly influenced how presidents approached the Communist-led island, where a U.S. trade embargo and travel ban have been enforced for more than 50 years.

The dramatic lurch of Cuban American voters away from the GOP in presidential contests is clear, but whether this will translate into a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba is unknown.

According to exit polls, Obama took 48 percent of the Cuban American vote in Florida this week, up from 35 percent in 2008. In 2000, Al Gore took only 25 percent of that vote.

Also on Tuesday, Joe Garcia, a Cuban American Democrat who is a former head of the Cuban American National Foundation, a powerful lobbying group in Miami and Washington, defeated incumbent Republican Rep. David Rivera in Florida's 26th Congressional District, which includes south Miami and the Florida Keys.

Garcia favors a slow, cautious engagement with Cuba and approves of the Obama administration's decision to allow more Cuban Americans to visit their homeland more often and to send more money and goods there — a far less strict policy than many Republicans in Congress endorse.

It is still against the law for ordinary Americans to travel to or do business in Cuba — though with exceptions to the embargo, the United States sells more than $350 million in chickens, corn, soy and wheat to the island each year, for cash only.

"The number of Cuban Americans going for Obama were shocking to us, and we have been studying this section of electorate for more than 30 years," said pollster Fernand Amandi in Miami.

"For Republicans, this must be very sobering, because in a quick, dramatic shift, your most reliable base of Hispanics in the GOP are suddenly not there," said Amandi, managing partner of the survey group Bendixen & Amandi International.

Both advocates for more engagement and the hard-liners opposed to such measures agree that forward movement is difficult as long as Havana resists overtures to free Alan Gross, a U.S. government contractor imprisoned in Cuba as an agent of subversion and sentenced to 15 years for bringing satellite communications equipment to the country.

"But for the first time in years, maybe there is some chance for a change in policy," said Wayne Smith, a former diplomat who served as chief of mission at the U.S. Interest Section, the virtual U.S. embassy in Havana, during the Carter administration.

"There are now many more new young Cuban Americans who support a more sensible approach to Cuba," Smith said.

Exit polls showed that among Cuban Americans born in the United States, more than 60 percent voted for Obama.

Phil Peters, a Cuba analyst at the libertarian Lexington Institute, called the GOP slide in Miami "the hard-liner's last hurrah," and asked in his blog, "Who would have imagined that President Obama could liberalize Cuba policies and increase his Miami-Dade margin by four points?"

The exit polls, however, did not ask Cuban Americans about Cuba policy.

The survey group ImpreMedia shows that Latino voters in Florida named the economy and jobs as the most important issue in this election, followed by immigration, education and health care.

"I don't expect there will be a big change in the Obama administration policy toward Cuba, for several reasons," said James Cason, mayor of Coral Gables in Miami-Dade County and former chief of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana under President George W. Bush.

Cason pointed out that Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, won reelection handily, and she remains a staunch opponent of rapprochement.

So does Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who serves on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, where he could ascend to the chairmanship, which would create additional roadblocks to any changes requiring congressional approval.

"I think Cuba remains in the backwaters of foreign policy," Cason said.

Another former diplomat and U.S. ambassador in the region, Everett Briggs, said, "Obama has made moves to normalize relations, but he has gotten nothing in return."

"Cuba is not a normal country, so we shouldn't fool ourselves to treat it as such," Briggs said.

In Cuba, Obama is a popular president, and there is hope that he will help improve life on the island.

Carlos Alzugaray, former a Cuban diplomat who is now an academic in Havana, said, "If Obama continues doing what he has done so far, which is not really very much — being more flexible for travel — this is a beneficial trend, but the serious challenges, like the embargo, like removing Cuba from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, this requires Congress."

Kirenia Nuñez Perez, a human rights activist in Havana, said that opposition groups in Cuba support Obama, but are frustrated that the Cuban government continues to detain and harass dissidents. "So the question is, will there be a better relationship? Better for who? The Cuban government or the Cuban people?"

- - -

Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.

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