WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
31 Jan 2012 | Commentary

Republican Candidates Compete for the Shrinking Voting Bloc of Hardline Cuban Americans

By Geoff Thale

The leading Republican Presidential candidates' statements on Cuba policy last week were just the latest example of how narrow readings of domestic political interests prevent politicians from adopting a sensible foreign policy toward Cuba. Interestingly, the Republican calculus may prove wrong in the general election.
In the lead-up to Tuesday's Republican primary in Florida, Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have both locked themselves in to radicalized positions on Cuba in order to compete for the Cuban-American share of the Republican primary vote. Gingrich has promised an increase in covert actions to undermine the Cuban government, although current U.S. covert programs in Cuba have served more to provoke the Cuban government than to promote democracy on the island. Not to be outdone, Romney has promised a return to Bush-era policies on travel, although limiting travel has proved more successful in punishing Cuban-American families than in pressuring the Cuban government. In a move against his own pro-business stance, Romney then went even further: astonishingly, he promised to enforce Title III of the Helms-Burton law, a provision which would allow Cuban exiles to sue foreign companies in U.S. courts for investing in Cuba.
Republican primary candidates' adoption of radical positions on Cuba targets only one part of the Cuban-American community and ignores ongoing changes in Florida and the lessons of the 2008 election. The conventional wisdom is that Cubans are Republican and support a hard-line position on Cuba. But this isn't entirely true any more. Conservative voters are still the majority in Florida's Cuban-American voting community, but their dominance is by no means absolute. A poll by Florida International University (FIU) from September 2011 of Miami-Dade Cuban Americans shows that of registered Cuban-American voters, 56 percent are Republicans, 20 percent are Democrats, and 23 percent are Independents. Together, Democrats and Independents comprise nearly half of the Cuban-American voting population. 44 percent of Cuban Americans oppose continuing the embargo. Demographic trends will continue to move the Cuban-American voter bloc in the direction of engagement: both young Cubans and recent arrivals favor a more liberal Cuba policy. Cuban-American public opinion is not the monolith it is often thought to be.
In other words, the Cuban-American community is becoming more diverse and less ideologically rigid, and this was part of Barack Obama's success with Cuban Americans and in Florida in 2008. But now, Romney and Gingrich have committed themselves to extreme positions on Cuba that were not necessary and may in fact become a liability in the general election.
In any case, most of the Cuban-American Republicans would never vote for Obama, even if he promised to send hit squads after Fidel and Raul. And by all indications, Obama realizes this and will focus on courting the Cuban-American center, rather than attempting to compete with the Republican candidates for the votes of the Cuban-American right. At one time, Democrats’ strategy for going after the 30 to 40 percent of the vote in the Cuban-American community was to echo hard-line views on Cuba and emphasize their own economic policies. Clinton did so in 1992 and 1996, and Gore followed suit in 2000. Obama took a different approach, reflecting changes in the Cuban-American community. He adopted a much more nuanced approach to Cuba in general and he emphasized his support for travel by Cuban Americans to visit and support family on the island. One result of this is that Cuban-American family travel expanded, creating an ever-larger constituency for engagement with Cuba. When House Republicans tried in December 2011 to roll back Obama’s liberalization of Cuban-American family travel, significant numbers of Cuban Americans called and wrote the White House in protest. To the surprise of some observers (and to the disappointment of hardliners), Obama stood firm on family travel and defeated Republican efforts to undo his regulatory changes. Liberalizing travel and promoting engagement are well-considered political responses to what the Obama campaign has recognized as shifts in the Cuban-American community. They are also sensible foreign policy moves. As Romney and Gingrich fight over a shrinking pool of conservative Cuban-American votes in Tuesday's primary, they are committing themselves to positions that will likely hurt them with Cuban Independents in the general election. They would do well to take another look at both the Cuban-American community and Barack Obama’s electoral success in 2008.

Geoff Thale is WOLA’s program director. Mr. Thale has studied Cuba issues since the mid-1990s and traveled to Cuba more than a dozen times, including organizing delegations of academics and Members of Congress.

(Photo by iowapolitics.com)