1 July 2004

Buying Cuban Exiles Gets Tricky

By Gwynne Dyer

“We’re not waiting for the day of Cuban freedom; we’re working for the day of Cuban freedom,” boasted President George W. Bush in early May, as he announced the new measures to strengthen economic pressure on Cuba that came into effect last Wednesday (30 June). From now on, Cuban-Americans will be able to visit the island only once every three years, not annually, and the amount of money they can bring with them will be cut by more than two-thirds.

Other Americans will continue to be banned from going to Cuba at all (though they can go to North Korea, Libya, or anywhere else they want in the world). For those who defy the ban and get caught, the maximum penalty is ten years in prison and a fine of $250,000. In practice few have been caught, and those who were paid an average fine of only $7,000 –but now federal ‘travel police’ will crack down on the traffic. And US military aircraft will be deployed in the skies near Cuba to push American TV and radio propaganda broadcasts through Cuban jamming.

This stuff is obviously not going to shake Fidel Castro’s hold on power, so why did Mr Bush do it? The ‘Miami Herald’ published the complete answer in late May: “The new Cuba rules are a cold, poll-driven calculation that has less to do with democracy-building in Havana than with vote-counting in Miami.” There are 650,000 Cuban-Americans in southern Florida, and the older generation are still frozen in hostility to the regime that turned them into exiles 45 years ago.

Florida is the ultimate swing state, won by Mr Bush by the narrowest of margins in 2000. He would have lost it by about a hundred thousand votes, and the whole presidential election with it, if the Cuban-Americans of southern Florida had split their vote between Democrats and Republicans in the usual way: Bill Clinton got 39 percent of their votes in 1996, whereas Al Gore got only 18 percent of their votes in 2000.

It was the outrage among Cuban-Americans when the Clinton administration forced the return of eight-year-old Elian Gonzalez to his father in Cuba after his mother had died trying to flee to the US that caused those votes to shift. There is no similar issue to alienate Cuban-Americans in Florida from the Democratic Party today, so the Bush administration has to pull all the stops out to keep Florida from reverting to normal. That’s what the new anti-Cuban measures are really about.

This is all grist for Fidel Castro’s mill. There is no evidence that Mr Bush is planning to invade anywhere else before the next election — and no US administration since John F. Kennedy’s in the early 1960s has seriously planned to invade Cuba — but this outburst of bluster lets Mr Castro pretend otherwise. “Do not try crazy adventures such as surgical strikes or wars of attrition using sophisticated techniques because you could lose control of the situation,” he warned the Bush administration recently.

It’s all nonsense, of course, but it strengthens Mr Castro’s hand at home by letting him parade once more as the defender of Cuban independence. Since he was in no danger of overthrow anyway — most Cubans are resigned to waiting for the ‘biological solution’ to remove the 77-year-old Maximum Leader — the only real impact on Cuba of the new restrictions will be to make poor Cubans a bit poorer. However, they may have a quite different impact in the United States than the Bush campaign strategists intended.

The idea is to win the backing of the Cuban exiles, but it may be a mistake for the Republicans to treat them all as a single, obsessively anti-Castro bloc. Very few are pro-Castro, to be sure, but the obsession with bringing him down at any cost is far greater among those who came out of Cuba in the first wave of refugees and their descendants than among those who left two decades later in the Mariel boat-lift in 1980.

The old guard lost businesses, property and professional careers to Fidel Castro’s Communist reforms, and though they have built new lives for themselves in the United States they have never forgiven him. Even though many of them would not go back to Cuba if he fell dead tomorrow, they want to see him destroyed, and they basically don’t care how much Cubans suffer in the process. Mr Bush will win their votes with his new measures, but he was probably going to get most of them anyway.

The Mariel refugees are a different generation. Growing up under Communism, they had little property to lose, which paradoxically makes them less bitter. They have also stayed much more in touch with their families back home, and the remittances and the regular visits mean a lot to them. With their US-born children, they make up about a third of the south Florida Cuban community.

But here’s the rub: they also include most of the former Democratic voters who switched to Mr Bush last time because they were furious about the Elian Gonzalez case. They will tend to drift back to the Democrats this time, so they are exactly the group Mr Bush must target if he wants to win Florida again — but they DON’T want remittances and family visits to Cuba cut. In doing just that, Mr. Bush may be cutting his own throat.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“This…intended”)