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Havana John

The House of Representatives is such a reliable rubber stamp for George W. Bush that it's remarkable anytime the body votes against the president's wishes. It's even more remarkable when the House thwarts one of Bush's few election-year legislative priorities. But that's exactly what happened last week. It was lost in the hoopla surrounding John Edwards's selection the previous day, but, on July 7, 46 Republicans joined 174 Democrats to block parts of the Bush administration's new Cuba policy. That policy, which went into effect last month, includes new regulations severely limiting remittances of money and goods that Cuban-Americans can send to family members on the island, as well as a new rule scaling back family visits from one per year to one every three years. The House vote overturned the draconian remittance policy, which bans Americans from sending gift parcels that include anything from clothing to fishhooks to shampoo to seeds, and which has angered a significant sliver of the Cuban-American population. And the debate on the House floor featured the rare spectacle of conservative Republicans ripping into each other. Intemperate comparisons to the Holocaust were made. Members were accused of being anti-family. Speaking angrily for the losing side, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the hard-line Cuban-American congressman from South Florida, complained that the amendment "seeks to undermine an entire policy that President Bush has just implemented."

It's not the first time the House (or even the GOP) has split on Cuba policy. The 42-year-old U.S. embargo and the regular attempts to tighten or loosen restrictions on trade and travel to the island frequently pit free-trade conservatives and liberal Democrats against hard-line, anti-Castro Republicans. But, for the first time in the history of Cuban-American politics, the cleavage that has long existed in Washington is now mirrored in the Cuban-American community itself. Recent polls, including one released two days after the House vote, show that Bush's support among Cuban-Americans, a Florida demographic essential to his reelection and one he won overwhelmingly in 2000, is bleeding because of his new policies. Bush captured 82 percent of the Cuban-American vote in 2000, but the poll showed that his support is down to 66 percent, a drop equivalent to about 60,000 Florida votes. Given that he won the state by 537 votes, the drop provides a significant opening for John Kerry. The question now is whether the Massachusetts senator can seize it.

For years, analysts have predicted that second-generation Cuban-Americans and recent arrivals from the island, who are supposedly less wedded to the hard- line policies of older Cuban-American activists, would slowly shift this demographic toward the Democrats. But the predictions have never translated into support on Election Day. Republican presidential candidates through the 1980s and 1990s regularly received over 80 percent of the Cuban-American vote. The one anomaly is Bill Clinton, who, in 1996, won an impressive 29 percent of Florida's Cuban vote. But that success had little to do with a new and supposedly more open-minded generation of voters. Clinton won his share of the vote the old-fashioned way--by pandering to hard-liners like the members of the Cuban American National Foundation (canf) and signing tough legislation like the Helms-Burton Act, which sought to sanction companies using property confiscated from Americans. In 2000, there was again lots of talk about the new wave of more pragmatic Cuban voters, but the theory was never really tested. Once the Clinton administration sent Elin Gonzalez back to Fidel Castro's tyranny, most Cuban-Americans never gave the Democratic ticket a hearing. Bush won eight out of ten Cuban-Americans in 2000, and his brother Jeb won about the same margin two years later in his gubernatorial reelection. Also in 2002, Mario Diaz-Balart, Lincoln's little brother, easily defeated a Cuban-American Democrat named Annie Betancourt, a widow of a Bay of Pigs veteran and a critic of the U.S. embargo. She seemed to be the face of the New Cuban demographic courted by Democrats. But Mario won the South Florida House seat 65 percent to 35, garnering the familiar 81 percent of the Cuban-American vote.

Yet things really may be different this time. Last year, Bush started to hear grumblings among his Cuban-American base that he hadn't done enough to dislodge Castro from power. He formed a commission to come up with a comprehensive new Cuba policy, and hard-liners like the Diaz-Balarts helped convince the White House to adopt the panel's most controversial recommendations: a crackdown on remittances and travel to the island by Cuban- American families. The policies sparked outrage in Miami not seen since the Elin affair. The new policies have dominated Spanish-language television and radio. Small Cuban-American businesses that specialize in shipping gift packages to Cuba have told reporters they will likely close down. Cuban- Americans jammed Miami International Airport to squeeze in one last trip to the island before the new rules took effect--some reportedly yelling anti-Bush slogans. New groups like the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights sprung up overnight to oppose the policies. Even canf issued a statement opposing several of the new restrictions it considers anti-family, pointing out that the policies had "created a greater divide" between established Cuban-Americans and recent arrivals--exactly the split Democrats have been counting on for years.

Polls confirm canf's observation. A survey of Miami-Dade Cuban-Americans conducted by Sergio Bendixen for the New Democrat Network (NDN), a group that has made the Cuban-American vote a top electoral priority this year, shows that a significant chunk of this demographic may now be open to Kerry. Bendixen slices the Cuban-American electorate into three groups. The biggest is made up of those who were born in Cuba and came to the United States prior to 1980 (the year of the Mariel boatlift). These are the most active and committed voters. They tend to be well-educated and wealthy. These people dominate the older Cuban-American political institutions and advocate the most hard-line policies. They have few relatives left in Cuba, so the new remittance and travel policies don't affect them much. A national Democrat has no chance with these voters. Eighty-nine percent support Bush over Kerry. But their ranks are declining. According to Bendixen and NDN, they have dropped from 90 percent to 67 percent of the Cuban-American electorate since 1990.

The remaining third of the electorate--the New Cuban bloc--comprises the two other Cuban-American groups: those born in Cuba who came to the United States after 1980 and Cuban-Americans born in the United States. Unlike the pre-Mariel Cuban-Americans, the recent arrivals are less educated, less politically organized, and more likely to have come to the United States for economic, rather than political, reasons. Many have more in common with recent immigrants from across Latin America than with the pre-1980 Cuban immigrants. And, because they are much more likely to have extended families back home, they are also the ones most affected by the new Bush policies. They support Kerry over Bush 40 percent to 29 percent. The final group consists of the sons and daughters of the Cuban-American immigrants. This new generation is less obsessed with Cuban politics and votes in similar proportion to Latinos generally. Bendixen's poll shows them supporting Kerry over Bush, 58 percent to 32 percent.

Earlier this year, Kerry made a stab at wooing the pre-1980 crowd by trying to outflank Bush on the right, an effort the senator's legislative record made hard to take seriously. But, as Bush moved to adopt the new regulations, Kerry realized his opportunity was with the New Cubans. On June 5, he released a policy paper sharply criticizing the new Bush restrictions, calling them "a cynical and misguided ploy for a few Florida votes. This move will not pressure Castro. But it will pressure Cuban-Americans and their often elderly relatives across the straits."

It's a smart play. A new poll released last week shows that one-third to one-half of Cuban-Americans oppose several of the president's new regulations. But it also finds that, overall, only 16 percent of Cuban-Americans back Kerry-- they may be mad at Bush, but they have yet to commit to his challenger. The Kerry campaign, however, is starting to pay closer attention to these voters. In addition to Kerry's recent statements, they now have a full-time staffer organizing Cuban-Americans. They've recruited Fernando Amandi, a former pro- Bush Republican and business leader, to raise money. And the Democrats writing the party platform recently approved language supporting "a policy of principled travel to Cuba that promotes family unity and people to people contact." It won't take a lot for these efforts to prove worthwhile. "We don't have to win the Cuban vote to be successful," says a top Kerry aide in Florida. "We just have to pick up our margin by five or ten points." President Bush may have accidentally made that possible.

This article originally ran in the July 26, 2004, issue of the magazine.