An expert's point of view on a current event.

Not Your Father’s Cuba

What Marco Rubio and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen don't get about the new generation of Cuban-Americans.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Florida Republican who is poised to take the gavel for the House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs after her party’s sweep of Tuesday’s congressional elections, arrived in the United States in 1960, at the age of 8. The Pan Am jet that carried her to Miami International Airport from Havana, where her father had been a prominent member of the anti-Castro violent resistance, was one of the last commercial flights to leave Cuba. “We thought it was just another revolution in the homeland that would blow over in a matter of weeks,” she told the Washington Post in 2007. “The weeks turned into decades, and here we are. Pan Am went bankrupt, and the Castro regime is still operating.”

Ros-Lehtinen is not only the first Hispanic woman elected to the House of Representatives, but also the first Cuban exile, and her policy record shows it. She has supported every single law and regulation shoring up the United States’ 48-year-old embargo of the island, and opposed any international engagement with Fidel Castro regime — even Pope John Paul II’s visit to the country in 1998. In 1989, she successfully lobbied President George H.W. Bush to secure the release of — and amnesty for — Orlando Bosch, a Cuban exile previously imprisoned in Venezuela for blowing up a Cuban airliner with 73 passengers aboard, including 24 members of the Cuban national fencing team. In 2000, she fought the repatriation of Elian Gonzalez, with less success.

Marco Rubio, Ros-Lehtinen’s former intern who was elected as Florida’s Republican junior senator on Tuesday, shares her background in the exile community and much of her outlook on Cuba policy. In his victory speech, he described Castro’s revolution, in a well-worn exile phrase, as “an accident of history.” As a member of the Florida legislature seven years ago, he signed a letter to President George W. Bush calling for the end of the “wet foot/dry foot” immigration policy towards Cubans and more funding for the anti-Castro radio and television stations the U.S. government broadcasts into Cuba.

These positions are emblematic of the Cuban exile community in Miami, a voting bloc whose enormous political heft belies its size. The 838,000 exiles in the Miami area — less than five percent of Florida’s population — have been a pillar of Republican support in presidential elections since 1980, and over the subsequent years have sent two Cuban-American Republican senators and four Republican congressmen to Washington. (New Jersey is represented in the Senate and House by the Cuban-American Democrats Bob Menendez and Albio Sires, respectively, both of whom typically vote with the Florida Republicans on Cuba issues.) The lawmakers have fought tooth and nail against even the Obama administration’s minimal attempts to reform Cuba policy; Menendez threatened to hold the nominations of presidential appointees — science advisers whose jobs were completely unrelated to Cuba policy — hostage over Cuba travel concerns. Even modest goodwill gestures, such as cooperation with the Cuban government to provide medical services in post-earthquake Haiti, have drawn letters of protest from the Cuban-American legislators.

Over recent decades, however, a funny thing has happened: The Cuban exile community, in Miami and elsewhere in the United States, has grown apart from the politicians who represent its interests in Washington. Miami’s Cubans may keep voting for Ros-Lehtinen and Rubio, but they no longer agree with them.

Consider the results of a December 2008 poll of Cuban-Americans in Florida’s Miami-Dade County conducted by the Institute for Public Opinion Research at Florida International University, which found that 55 percent of the respondents were in favor of lifting the embargo — the first time a majority had said so since the institute started polling in 1991. A full 65 percent were in favor of the United States both resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba and loosening the additional restrictions placed on travel to and trade with the island by the George W. Bush administration in 2003.

If Cuban-Americans’ views on U.S.-Cuba relations are changing, it’s largely because the makeup of the Cuban-American community itself is changing. The founding generation of Cuban émigrés — exiles like Ros-Lehtinen and her parents — arrived in Miami traumatized, their lives uprooted and their homes and possessions confiscated. They rarely if ever returned to the island, and in their long absence constructed a nostalgic image of Cuba that bore little resemblance to reality. They looked at the American policy toward Cuba as a means of catharsis and compensation; with their support, the embargo went from being a means of achieving a policy — the strategic containment of communism — to a policy goal unto itself.

But today’s Cuban immigrants are increasingly far removed from these sensibilities. More than half of them arrived from Cuba in the last 20 years, and they are separated from the 1959 generation’s experience by more than time alone. The defining event in the lifetime of the younger generation wasn’t the revolution — it was the Special Period, the era of deprivation ushered in by the collapse of Cuba’s largest trading partner, the Soviet Union, in 1991. Overnight, Cuba lost 75 percent of its exports and imports, and more than a third of its gross domestic product vanished. Over the next few years, things went from bad to worse. Those of us who remained on the island often went to bed after eating poorly or not eating at all. Transportation almost collapsed for lack of Soviet oil imports and subsidies. In the summer, electricity was rationed: eight hours on and eight hours off. By 1994, the situation had worsened to the point where Castro, in the face of public protests, told the Cuban people that the government wouldn’t stand in their way if they wanted to emigrate. More than 35,000 balseros set sail on boats and makeshift rafts, most of them for Florida.

Throughout the Special Period, Cubans suffered on account of Castro’s ideological stubbornness, his defense of the old flag of communism at all costs. But they were also wronged by the exile leadership in Miami, whose own ideological blindness trumped any feelings of solidarity with Cubans still on the island. At the 1993-1994 nadir of the crisis, when Cubans were fleeing the island in the midst of food shortages, exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa and his Cuban American National Foundation, the powerful lobbying group on the other side of the Straits of Florida, were obsessed with blocking family remittances and travel to Cuba. They pressured Congress to pass a law addressing exiles’ property claims on the island and reinforcing the embargo. (Congress passed it in 1996 as the Helms-Burton Act.) What Cubans — even those who were just as disenchanted with the communist regime as the first-generation exiles — saw when they looked at Miami was a group fixated on punishing Castro, even if it came at the expense of the Cuban people.

If the new Cuban-Americans arrived in the United States already disenchanted with the old guard, they also had a different vision for how change will eventually come to the island: from the bottom up, opening markets first and democratizing second, rather than by ending the current leadership’s rule. These recent arrivals travel to Cuba frequently, reject the all-or-nothing political polarization of the older generation, and maintain links with their relatives and social groups — particularly religious ones — on the island. Two months after the U.S. Congress eased travel restrictions on Cuban Americans in March 2009, the number of exiles traveling to the island rose 20 percent; by the end of the year, the number had more than doubled from the previous year to close to 200,000 travelers. Cuban tour operators say this group consists mostly of exiles who arrived in the United States in the last two decades and the American-born children of exiles.

The new exiles are chiefly interested in economic reform, which could increase business opportunities for those living abroad while speeding up the process of reconciliation. When the Cuban government unveiled plans to massively reduce the public sector in August, many Cuban émigrés of the last wave criticized the leaders for not tapping the economic development potential of the diaspora by opening the country to their investment. They are convinced that Cubans on the island, not exile leaders abroad, will be the driving force of change, and want to promote openness and liberalization on the part of the regime in order to help them. In the Florida International University poll, the difference of views from generation to generation is striking: Just 35 percent of exiles who emigrated before 1980 oppose the embargo. Seventy-one percent of those who left after 1998 do.

Neither Ros-Lehtinen nor Rubio speaks to the aspirations and outlook of this new majority — and indeed, if you look closely at the voting patterns in exile community, you can see cracks in the foundation of the bloc beginning to emerge. According to exit polling in the 2008 election by Bendixen & Associates, 84 percent of Cubans in the Miami area over the age of 55 voted for John McCain, a traditional Republican Cuba hawk — but Barack Obama, the first major presidential candidate with a record of opposition to the embargo, garnered 55 percent of the under-30 vote. This year’s election also saw the second serious challenge in as many elections from a Cuban-American politician running in a Florida House race on a platform of engaging with Cuba. Joe Garcia, a former leader of Mas Canosa’s Cuban American National Foundation who has reinvented himself as a Cuba policy reformer, got 42 percent of the vote against Cuba-hardliner David Rivera — a loss, but in an exile-heavy district and an election year that favored Republicans, a hopeful sign for the future.

But there are other means besides Congress of breaking the exiles’ monopoly on Cuba policy. Most foreign policy, after all, is made by the executive branch, not the legislative one, and considerable reforms to the embargo can be managed through executive orders alone. Obama’s policy toward Cuba has so far consisted only of improvements around the margins: giving Cuban Americans unrestricted rights to visit the island and send unlimited remittances to their relatives there, and a smattering of cultural exchanges. But the chances that Obama — who, as a state legislator in Illinois, declared that the embargo had “utterly failed” — will do more are greater now than in the first two years of his presidency. This week’s Republican electoral rout means that Florida Democrats have less to lose from a Democratic president supporting loosened travel restrictions; the Cuban government’s recent political prisoner releases and accelerated economic reforms have increased international pressure on the United States to change course. None of Obama’s most Cuba-relevant foreign policy officials — soon-to-be-National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon, Obama’s senior advisor on Latin America Dan Restrepo, Secretary for Hemispheric Affairs Arturo Valenzuela, and Valenzuela’s senior advisor for Cuba, Dan Erikson — have ever defended the embargo as an effective policy. The circumstances are ripe for Obama to put U.S.-Cuba relations on the path to de-escalation. And no one should be surprised if, an election or two down the road, Cuban Americans vote their approval.

Arturo Lopez-Levy is a lecturer at the Colorado School of Mines and a Ph.D. candidate at the Josef Korbel School of the University of Denver.

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