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Cuban-Americans Ready For Change?

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The talk of South Florida is the possible changing of the guard in three congressional districts.

For the first time in 20 years, long-time Republican members of Congress from greater Miami (Districts 18, 21 and 25) face strong challenges from Democratic candidates.

The three incumbents, all of Cuban descent, have strong ties to the area’s older conservative Cuban community and actively support its hard-line approach toward Cuba. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, in office since 1989 and 1993 respectively, have easily fended off earlier Democratic contenders. Diaz-Balart’s brother, Mario, was elected in 2002.

But this time around, their challengers are also well known in local political circles.

Raul Martínez, the popular Democratic former mayor of Hialeah, a working-class city next to Miami, announced on Jan. 22 that he would run against Lincoln Díaz-Balart. True to form, Díaz-Balart told The Miami Herald that Martinez’s candidacy was part of a ploy by Fidel Castro sympathizers to weaken the embargo. Martinez says that he only wants to ease President George W. Bush’s 2004 restrictions on family travel to Cuba and on remittance restrictions. This is not a big difference from existing policy, but in Miami, it’s a sea change.

Then, on Feb. 7, the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party chairman, Joe Garcia, the former executive director of the traditionally Republican Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), declared his parallel candidacy against Mario Diaz-Balart. Annette Taddeo, a leading local businesswoman, is expected to announce soon that she will take on Ros-Lehtinen. Like Martínez, Garcia favors an easing of the family travel rules. Taddeo, who is known regionally and nationally, and won an International Businesswoman of the Year Award from Women in International Trade, was raised in Colombia and came to the U.S when she was 17.

These Democratic contenders could mean a major cultural shift from the current officials. The Díaz-Balarts are scions of a political family with roots in the Cuban government of Fulgencio Batista, the dictator and strongman overthrown in 1959. Ros-Lehtinen is the daughter of an anti-Castro militant and is the ex-wife of a U.S. attorney, Dexter Lehtinen. She worked in the gubernatorial campaign of Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, and was elected to office with his support.

All three current GOP representatives support the almost half-century-old U.S. policy of economic strangulation of Cuba, as well as efforts to end Castro’s regime — including military intervention. They also support Treasury rules that limit family trips to once every three years — without waivers for family emergencies — and reduce the amount of remittances to families in Cuba.

Why would Democrats consider a challenge now? It could be that the character of Cuban immigration has changed. Most Cuban newcomers today were born after the revolution and worked as state employees; they are not the once wealthy landowners or businessmen who fled the revolution. This new wave of immigrants is less likely to join the war of restoration or long for a return to the island they controlled. Rather, they came to the United States for better-paying jobs.

Now settled in and around Miami, they may merely want to see their families back in Cuba, send them money or visit the island. The 2004 Bush rules struck them particularly hard.

The children of earlier immigrants also live in a far different world from their parents. Though steeped in the hard-line positions of two earlier generations, they have never known Cuba and did not experience its loss like their elders. "They give Cuba almost no importance," Sergio Bendixen, a pollster who has been tracking trends in the Miami Cuban community for years, said last fall, "For them it’s education, health care and Hispanic issues such as immigration."

In addition, increased immigration from other Latin American countries has lessened the influence of Miami’s Cuban population. For these other Latino immigrants, Cuba is not the No. 1 issue.

In 2007, Florida International University conducted an opinion survey among Cuban immigrants that revealed:

Support for dialogue with Cuba rose to 65 percent, the highest ever, compared to approximately 40 percent in the similar 1991 poll.

The implications of such figures were confirmed last week, as reported in the Miami Herald:

The longer a Latino is in the United States, the more likely he or she will identify with the Democratic Party — possibly even in Florida, where the Republican leanings of Cuban Americans have made it an exception to the national trend, a new study states.

”Florida is distinctive, as we know, but there are still elements of that Democratic advantage even in the state of Florida for all Latinos, especially in terms of the potential of registering new individuals,” said Luis Fraga, University of Washington political science professor who worked on the survey. “For those who are citizens and not registered to vote…the Democrats have a potential advantage even in the state of Florida.”

It may be too soon for the Democratic challengers in Miami to dislodge the old order, but that is always the case until change actually happens. When it does, it could lead to a realignment of party politics in a key battleground state and a change, as well, in a virulently anti-Castro U.S. foreign policy dating back to the early 1960s.

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