The Staunch Cuban Republican: A Thing of the Past?

Split allegiances, a photo taken in Havana, Cuba by Ramon Espinosa/AP

Split allegiances, a photo taken in Havana, Cuba by Ramon Espinosa/AP

Younger Cubans are moving what once was a staunchly Republican electorate to the left: “From a dominance of 70 percent in the early 1990s, registered Republicans have declined to approximately 53 percent of the [Cuban] population in the current [2016] poll.” The changes in Cuban Republican ideology have been driven first by disillusionment with the George W. Bush presidency, followed by empowerment by the Obama Administration.

In analyzing what has driven the modern change away from Republicanism, it is necessary to begin with the fact that the number of registered Republicans for the two Cuban immigrant cohorts (arriving from 1959 onward) is double that of second-generation Cubans. Dissatisfaction with Kennedy’s handling of Cuba at the height of the Cold War could explain the Cubans’ early move to the Republican party. Seeing his failure, Kennedy tried instead to stress domestic issues. In a campaign swing through the Midwest on October 5-7, the president barely mentioned foreign policy. This was appalling to the electorate of recent Cuban exiles, who were primarily focused on anti-Castro rhetoric. As a result, Cuban voting patterns have since been aligned with the party that promised support for anti-Castro policy: the GOP.

The participation of 4 Miami men in the Nixon Watergate scandal is a perfect example of just how strongly Cuban exiles felt compelled to support Republican leaders on the basis of stricter relations with Cuba. One of those Cuban-Americans stated that “he and his fellow Cubans thought that the object of the Watergate break-in was to obtain information establishing that the regime of Cuba’s Fidel Castro was taking an active part in the campaign of Sen. George McGovern for the White House.”

Later on, during the Carter administration, several terrorist assaults conducted by Cuban-American emigrés against dialoguistas (those who were in favor of ‘dialoguing’ with the Castro regime) were indicative of the community’s staunch position against any sort of approval of relations with Cuba. A radical offshoot of the majority emigré population even conducted terrorist attacks on embassies and airplanes (culminating in Cubana de Aviación Flight 455), all related to silencing Cuban dialoguistas. This increased further in 1977 and 1978 “as a result of the Carter administration’s new policies towards Cuba and the diálogo.” Though these terrorists were a minority, they represented majority opinion against Cuban relations. Many Cubans became alienated by the “lack of intensity” with which Democratic administrations pursued anti-Castro policies. This ardent disapproval of any diplomatic relations with Cuba within the early exile community sparked a Cuban-American shift towards right-leaning politicians who promised to use an iron fist against Cuba.

The conservative leader the exile community longed for was finally here, in the form of former movie actor and California governor Ronald Reagan. His hardline anticommunist approach contrasted favorably with the Carter’s administration effort to normalize relations with Cuba’s Communist government. Reaganism hit the Cuban-American community hard: 86 percent of the Cuban-American citizens in Miami voted for Reagan in 1980, compared with his 56 percent of the vote share nationally. Cubans were becoming avid Republicans, a switch that was cemented with President Reagan’s enthusiastic support for the Cuban-American cause, including his visit to Little Havana, where he wore a guayabera and declaredViva Cuba Libre. Cuba sí, Castro no.”

In 2000, the leanings of registered voters looked far different from 1984, where nearly 90% of Cuban-American citizens voted for Reagan. In the 2000 FIU Cuba Poll, about 72.8 percent of the respondents were U.S. citizens. Of these, 90.2 percent reported being registered to vote, 67.1 percent in the Republican Party, 17.2 percent in the Democratic Party, and 14.1 percent were Independents. George W. Bush eventually garnered 72.7 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Miami Dade County. This total reflected a decrease of roughly 10 points from the 81 percent Bush was expected to gain in 2000 in the aftermath of the Elián González diplomatic incident, in what experts speculated was the “high watermark of Cuban-American opposition to Democrats.”

Elián González was one of many victims of the balsero (“rafter”) crisis of the 90s (el periodo especial “the special period” of famine in Cuba after the fall of the USSR), where many Cubans resorted to traveling by sea on makeshift rafts to the US in the hopes of gaining freedom. Elián was a toddler when his mother died on the raft that brought him to the shores of Florida. This sparked a custody crisis - would Elián be brought back to his father in Cuba or gain citizenship in the US? The Clinton administration decided that he would be brought back to Cuba—by force if necessary. This move faced widespread opposition in Miami’s Cuban community, reinforcing their support for the Republican Party in the 2000 election. According to the 2000 FIU Cuba Poll, 78.5 percent of Cuban-Americans believed that Elián should have stayed in the United States. The effect was unifying, where even the younger second- and third-generation Cuban Americans joined their parents and grandparents and rallied against sending Elián back. He became a martyr for the Cuban plight under Castro. This was devastating for the Clinton administration’s hold on the all-too-important Cuban vote in Miami.

The Clinton administration also instituted a policy called wet-foot dry-foot, which granted residency to Cubans who reached US shores, in an effort to help relations both with Cuba and with Cuban-Americans. However, this might have been a double-edged sword. The fact that their immigration problem was “solved,” as it were, may explain the Cuban-American community’s historic indifference toward the Democratic platform’s focus on immigration reform.  

After the Florida vote count fiasco of 2000 and his subsequent win in Miami-Dade, Republican George W. Bush was very grateful for the Cuban vote and established the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba (CAFC) to plan for when democracy would come to the island. During his two terms, he appointed a dozen Cuban-Americans to high-tier governmental posts, like Mel Martinez. As further evidence of his push to appeal to the all-important Cuban constituency, the Bush Administration tightened the sanctions against Cuba in July of 2004.

Bush’s efforts were not enough to keep Cuban voters staunch Republicans. The issue of anti-communism waned among exiles -- it ranked fifth in terms of concerns in a 2005 poll after having seen “no change” on the island after Republican promises. The shift came despite Bush suspending the twice-yearly migration talks and appointing a Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba to recommend ways of bringing about an “expeditious” end to the dictatorship. A Univision poll showed that more than one-third of Latino (mostly Cuban) voters in South Florida disapproved of the job Bush had done in trying to promote democracy and regime change in Cuba. This was a historic shift of the Cuban-American electorate, the moment where it began to move in opposition to Bush and the GOP.

Bush thought that the electorate would approve of these moves based on their longstanding support for anti-Cuba policy, but once these policies proved ineffective, the newer generations of Cuban-Americans became disillusioned. Soon, they would no longer comprise a traditional monolithic political block that would vote Republican unconditionally.

The FIU Cuba Poll of 2004 also provides major insights on the development of Cuban views. It would demonstrate that Cubans immigrating after 1980 would be more likely to vote Democrat, as opposed to the majority Republican bloc of voters before 1980. Compared to the FIU Cuba Poll of 1991 where only 22 percent of those surveyed were strongly in favor of seeking dialogue, in 2004, 34 percent were strongly in favor of doing so. The 2004 Poll also saw a 27.2 percent increase in those mostly opposing strengthening the embargo.

More interesting than this change over time is the breakdown of the same 2004 poll across generational blocs. Those who left Cuba between 1959-1964 when compared to those who came after 1985 were 23.6 percent less likely to strongly favor dialogue, 17.9 percent more likely to strongly oppose dialogue, and 20 percent more likely to support continuing the embargo. This change over time is most exemplified by the significant increase in the number of registered Democrats over generations. While only 9.6 percent of those Cubans who came between 1965-1974 were registered Democrats, 17.5 percent who came after 1985 were -- nearly double. These statistics seem even smaller when compared to those Cubans born here, of whom 31.1 percent were registered Democrats.

While the general trend of Cuban Republicanism demonstrates anti-Castro foreign policy as a tenant of their ideology, it has been shown that their actual views on domestic affairs are somewhat liberal, even across generations. The Cuban community of 2008 demonstrated how the voting electorate is not only less conservative than the GOP on a number of issues, but, on several others, the majority actually preferred positions that are traditionally considered quite liberal. For instance, in 2008, over 70 percent of Cuban-American voters overwhelmingly support increased restrictions on guns, “overwhelmingly favor legalizing the importation of prescription drugs,” and are relatively accepting of gay marriage. The pull of these domestic factors work constantly in opposition with the push of policy against Cuba in the Cuban-American electorate. On all issues except Cuba intervention policy, the majority hold Democratic political views.

Although the younger generations (those who immigrated post-1980) hold the most progressive of views, as of 2008, they constituted only 1 out of 8 Cuban voters and were less likely to be naturalized citizens. Constituting so little of the electorate means they are not as influential as the older Cuban generations, though they are still indicative of a changing mentality. While the older generations continue to hold grudges about the past Democratic presidencies (namely Kennedy and Carter) and support the Cold War policies of their beloved Reagan, the younger generations saw the little actual change occurring on the island as both discouraging regarding Cuban policy enthusiasm and also indicative of a need to adopt a new strategy. In fact, focus groups conducted by the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies predicted that “Cuban-Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 rate domestic policy concerns as more important than questions of U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba, and forecast that domestic concerns will more greatly affect their vote choice in the 2008 presidential election.” Once conditions in Cuba didn’t seem to get better after intense Republican interventions, many felt compelled to vote Democratic. The Cuban electorate is, then, a group of highly conditional single-issue voters.

Times are changing, and the statistics show it. What before was a consistently Republican bloc is now evidently moving to the left, a trend that manifested itself in the 2008 election. On his campaign trail stop in Miami, Obama said that his “policy toward Cuba will be guided by one word: Liberty,” signifying a clear move towards a compromise between the adamant older Reaganites and the younger generation (the Marielitos and beyond). Although most Cuban Americans share a strong commitment for a “free Cuba,” the intensity of younger Cubans on this issue is far less than their parents and grandparents. They worry less about Castro and more about maintaining the family they still have on the island. Obama knew the intricacies of the Cuban-American vote, telling the Miami crowds how Cuban-American money from Miami is what would make the community less dependent on Castro. Though the older generations of Cubans are more likely to be Republican, they are also the ones most likely to depend on social services that the Republican party platform believes should be cut. Obama attempted to use the pull factor of domestic issues (versus the push factor of foreign relations) in targeting the older generations during his 2012 campaign by using a series of Spanish-language radio and television ads, all of which warned of Republican efforts to cut these social programs that many Cubans depend on.

The Bendixen & Amandi polling firm estimated the percentage of Cubans who voted for Obama was 48 percent. This is a stark change from 2004, where 29 percent voted Democrat. Though Obama did initially announce his support for the embargo in a CANF speech, the embargo was eventually lifted, signaling the changing attitudes towards Cuban foreign policy. This change is most exemplified by how, in 2014, 62 percent of the Cuban American 18-29 group opposed continuing the embargo. When asked in 2011 how likely it was that they would vote for a candidate in favor of reestablishing relations, younger voters (18-29 age cohort) expressed the strongest support. In contrast, support for continuing the embargo was most fervent among Republican registered voters.

This older generation’s disillusion about the current state of politics is most evident in the testimony of a Bay of Pigs veteran, who stated in 2014 that, “One of the saddest things for me was when we were invited to Congress on the 50th anniversary and some of them didn’t even know about April 17th 1961”. The former uniform Republican voting block of 2000 was complicated by new generations, who trickled into the electorate not bearing implacable anti-Castro grudges. As of 2014, Republican Party registrations declined over the years while Independents and Democrats increased. From a dominance of 70% in the early 1990s, registered Republicans have declined to approximately 53% of the population in the current poll. Younger Cuban Americans voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and are far more likely to become Democrats than older Cubans. After so many presidencies and more than 50 years of Communist rule later, the Cuban-American Democratic-leaning youth will eventually take over the voting block once the older, frustrated exile generation dies out.

The Cuban electorate made headlines when Trump claimed he got 84 percent of the group’s vote. According to Pew research, the level of support for Trump among Cubans was similar to that of non-Latinos in the state (51%). This corresponds with the electorate’s 2014 numbers - according to that year’s FIU Cuba Poll, 53% of Cubans were registered Republicans. This number is not at all a departure from the last decade’s shift. The group remains split. When looking at current U.S. immigration policies directed at Cubans, they receive support from some Cuban Americans, and opposition from others. For instance, the Obama administration’s termination of the “wet foot/dry foot” policy caused the population as a whole (according to the FIU Cuba Poll of 2018) to be evenly split on its support for the termination of the wet foot/dry foot policy -- at 52%. Thus, a Cuban vote for Trump does not seem to derive from approval or disapproval with Obama’s Cuba policy (as the most recent Democratic party’s party leader).

It seems that Trump tried the same approach as Bush in trying to garner Cuban-American votes. He advocated for the abolition of socialism, an issue that especially appealed to that older pre-1979 cohort of voters (the Republican Party, in fact, maintains its 70% dominance in the pre-1979 cohort). When President Trump spoke about the “agony of socialism” in a 2019 Venezuela-centered talk at Florida International University, Marina Gil, a 65 year old resident of Miami and immigrant post-1980, said, “lots of talk but no action - it’s like the 2000s all over again.” This continuity of classic Republican techniques is a repetition of Bush’s failure to get the majority of Cuban-Americans’ support. Classic Cold-War anti-Cuba Republican ideology manifested itself in the Trump administration’s response to the sonic incidents of 2018, alleged attacks by the Cuban government on US diplomats on the island. Almost immediately, the US froze consular activity on the island. Though Marina is by no means representative of all Cuban-American voters, the lack of a staunch Republican bloc is peculiar. This once again harkens back to Bush’s failed efforts in maintaining the Cuban block by using anti-Cuba legislation and rhetoric. Though half of Cubans did vote for Trump, the past trends indicate that the group’s storied support for the Republican party is generally waning.

When considering all the changes in Cuban-American ideology in response to presidential rhetoric and action, it is increasingly obvious just how much Cuban-American political decisions hinge on foreign policy toward Cuba, and it's equally interesting to see what is happening as the new generation abandons that hinge. What happens in Cuba (or, conversely, what doesn’t happen) is a major factor of influence on a Cuban-American’s political alignment. With careful analysis of their social stances and understanding the roots of their economic worries, Cubans are domestically quite liberal, yet the older generations continue holding onto the Republican party’s anti-Castro rhetoric. Frustration with Castro and socialism continues to drive these post-revolutionary voters to the polls, while the younger generations see the fruitlessness of the embargo and have turned out to support more progressive stances towards Cuba. Given that Florida remains one of the country’s most important swing-states, this leftward shift in the younger generation could have implications for the rest of the country for years to come.

Diana Valcarcel Soler