The Cuban Vote: History and Tensions

By CHASE SPINELLI / Staff Writer


The vast cultural diversity of the United States plays a huge role in its elections. When viewed on a large scale, cultural and ethnic groups often vote very differently from one another, corresponding to the general shared history and tendencies of their electorate. These tendencies ebb and flow as the nation’s political climate shifts and time elapses. These changes may seem relatively insignificant on an individual level, but when magnified over an entire voting bloc have the ability to make or break an election, particularly in our electoral college. If a particular bloc makes up a large part of a particular state, it can have a much greater effect than if their electorate were more spread out.

One phenomenal example of such an effect is the Cuban-Americans bloc in Florida; not only does this bloc have the ability to shift an election, it has experience doing so. The Cuban bloc’s is not only unique in that it is largely confined to Florida (70% of Cuban-Americans live in the state), but it is also wholly different than the Latino-American bloc at large; Cuban-Americans are traditionally very conservative whereas Latino’s as a whole are not.

This trend has been made abundantly clear in recent presidential elections. For instance, in 2000 and 2004, President Bush won 75% and 78% of the Cuban vote respectively. In those same elections, he carried just 35% and 40% of Latinos as a whole.

This incongruence played a particularly massive role in the chaotic 2000 election, an election many political experts believe to have been swung in large part by the Cuban-American bloc. In that election, after a gigantic and hotly contested mess involving a recount and supreme court ruling, Bush defeated Al Gore in Florida by a mere 537 votes. This unbelievably close margin (.009%) propelled him to the presidency, in spite of the fact that he lost the country’s overall popular vote. Even a miniscule shift in the voting tendencies of any one of Florida’s voting blocs could have taken Bush over the top, and there’s ample evidence to suggest the Cuban-American’s experienced one of the largest.

This shift came in the form of retaliation to the custody saga of Elian Gonzalez – a 12 year old boy who successfully escaped Cuba and reached America by boat. Unfortunately, his mother, like many others who have attempted to escape, perished during the journey.  Elian was initially placed in the custody of relatives in Miami, but that became an issue when his father (who remained in Cuba) began petitioning for his son’s return. While many Republican politicians backed legislation granting Elian permanent residency status, the Democratic administration led by Bill Clinton ruled otherwise and Elian was returned. Although he initially supported the Republican legislation, Al Gore eventually fell in line with his party.

Elian’s return outraged the Cuban-American community, who by and large supported him remaining in America. The decision made by the Democrats, and specifically the flip flopping of Al Gore, mobilized many Cuban-Americans to vote Republican. The fate of one Cuban boy very well may have swung the entire election.

While the Elian Gonzalez saga may have sparked increasing animosity among Cuban-Americans towards the Democratic Party, it was hardly the beginning of the distrust, which can be traced back to 1959, the year Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba. Castro’s communist dictatorship caused many Cubans to flee the country and seek political asylum in America, increasing the Cuban-American population from around 15,000 to 230,000 in the years following his takeover. These immigrants were largely well educated and upper-middle class; they abhorred the policies of Castro and had the means to leave. Upon reaching America, they continued to be very invested in the fate of their country. When the Democratic administration of John F. Kennedy mangled the Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961 – a failed attempt at overthrowing Castro’s regime – a distrust of the Democratic Party was fostered amongst the rapidly enlarging Cuban-American community. This distrust, coupled with the more nationalistic tendencies of the Republican Party, caused the majority of Cuban-Americans to become Republicans. The general theory held that Cuban-American nationalism and prosperity would help weaken Castro’s cult of personality. Above all else, the Cuban-American voting bloc of this period despised communism, and the Republicans, especially during the years of Reagan’s presidency, were more often than not the loudest voices in the anti-communism fray. The match made sense.

However, for the majority of Hispanics, identifying with Republicans does not make as much sense. Minority voting blocs in this country have leaned left for a long time, and Hispanics as a whole are no exception. This trend could be explained in many ways for hours on end, but in very broad terms it can generally be associated with issues regarding income disparity and immigration. The Democratic Party’s platform generally benefits lower income groups and is much more lenient when it comes to immigration. This match too makes sense.

These broad issues, in addition to the aforementioned historical distrust, are at the very heart of the separation between Cubans and Hispanics as a whole. Of all the Hispanic ethnic groups in America, Cubans have both the highest average income and easiest path to citizenship. Much like the Cuban’s affinity for the Republican Party, this too can be easily explained in a historical context. The vast majority of the approximately 215,000 Cubans who immigrated to this country after the rise of Castro were educated, upper middle class citizens. They were the only people in the country who could afford to flee, and they by and large did so for political reasons. The vast majority of not only Hispanic immigrants but immigrants of all races are working class. They come to this country for economic reasons, to create a better life for themselves and their families.

In addition to this glaring class disparity, American immigration laws create a further layer of separation between the two groups. In 1966, the government passed The Cuban Adjustment Act, which essentially naturalized any Cuban who came to the country after 1959, regardless of general immigration laws or population quotas. In 1995, the legislation that would come to be known as the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy came into effect, granting any Cuban refugee who successfully makes it across the Caribbean onto American soil citizenship, while returning those caught by American patrol to Cuba. These laws directly contradict almost all American immigration platforms, and particularly stand out in comparison to the heightened security and feverish animosity that comes attached to the Mexican border. It is simply much easier to escape into this country from Cuba than any other Hispanic nation, and has been for some time. This stems from both American Cold War animosity towards The Soviet Union’s spread of communism and a general bias against less educated immigrants. In any case, it is a pretty blatant inequality, one that causes not only ideological separation but also ethnic tension. An encapsulation of this animosity and political tension came in 2013, when ethnically Mexican former Democratic governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson stated that Ted Cruz, an ethnically Cuban Republican senator from Texas, should not “be defined as a Hispanic.” While he later retracted these remarks, they are representative of feelings held by many, and showcase the product of the vast historical differences between the two groups.

While there are a whole host of factors separating Cubans and Hispanics, recent years have seen their political ideologies trending much closer together. In 2012, Barack Obama not only won the Hispanic vote over Mitt Romney, 71% to 27%, but also the Cuban vote, 49% to 47%. In many years’ prior, this type of win by a Democrat would have been unfathomable, but recent political changes have made it possible. While Cuba is still a communist country, under Obama our relationship with their government has eased considerably, and they been out from under Soviet control for decades. The fervent anti-communist and anti-Soviet attitudes of the past have largely died away. These issues formed much of the basis for Cuban conservatism, and with their decline in prominence has come a drop off in conservative enthusiasm in the community, especially amongst the original generation’s offspring who never lived through any of that animosity. Compounding conservatism’s weakening grip on second and third generation Cuban-Americans, more than ½ of Cuban-Americans immigrated after 1990, most of whom arrived by very precarious means, risking their lives at sea. These immigrants, unlike the older generation, largely come for economic reasons. Their lives and goals align much more closely with other Hispanics than older Cubans, and as such tend to lean left. The more these type of Cuban’s enter the country, the further the political pendulum swings.

On top of the changing demographics of the Cuban community is today’s current political climate. Whether intentionally or not, the fervent anti-immigration attitudes of much of the Republican Party have created by-products of fear mongering and xenophobia. This vitriol is primarily focused on illegal immigration across the Mexican border, but unfortunately in many cases manifests as an animosity towards anyone who looks Hispanic. The Republicans already were losing the Hispanic vote by a large margin, and with the existence of Donald Trump are brutally exacerbating the situation. Many Cubans, particularly those of the older conservative generation, are viewing Trump’s candidacy not only as a creator of racial conflict but as a foreboding sign of the past. His grand promises and strongman tactics remind many of those used by Fidel Castro, and are horribly alienating him from what would traditionally be his strongest Hispanic demographic.

In Florida, this alienation could prove to be the deciding factor. Republicans can no longer rely on Florida’s large Cuban population to give them an edge. What was once a huge advantage became a near a 50-50 split in 2012, and with the changing demographics of the Cuban Bloc and the words of Donald Trump could become much worse.

Despite everything working against them, the Republicans have one advantage: Hillary Clinton. While she is a historically unpopular candidate among all, she is particularly unpopular amongst Cubans. Her husband returned Elian Gonzalez over fifteen years ago, and for many Cubans that association is unredeemable. Fair or unfair, the stigma remains.

The massive unpopularity of both candidates has resulted in a historically contentious election cycle, and will likely lead to a very close result. In 2000, a closely contested election may very well have come down to the Cuban-Americans vote. In 2016, their wholly unique history and political ideology may again be a deciding factor.

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