Signs of change in Little Havana

Polls show that Republicans' grip on Florida's Cuban-American vote is loosening, yet Democrats have yet to take full advantage of the shift.


Julian Borger
October 5, 2004 5:09PM (UTC)

For Cuban exiles, the Versailles cafe is a parallel world. If there had been no revolution, no Fidel Castro, they would have been sipping coffee and reading the daily papers in a place just like this in Havana. But 45 years on, they are still in Little Havana, Miami, in exile limbo.

The waiters in starched white shirts and forest-green waistcoats make the Versailles look as the Cuban capital once did; so do the tiled floors and coffee counter where Cuban-Americans come to gossip. The menu and the ambience are essentially unchanged in decades, but the politics of Little Havana are changing in small ways that could have a big effect on this year's presidential election.

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The change is clear to anyone who looks out of the cafe's window and across the road,where the John Kerry presidential campaign has set up an office, plastered with Democratic paraphernalia. As electoral effrontery, this is on a par with Republicans opening up in Harlem. In Florida, the Cuban vote is the rock on which President Bush's 2000 electoral victory was built. Corralled and coddled by Jeb, his Spanish-speaking brother and the state's governor, 82 percent of Florida's 450,000 Cuban-Americans voted Republican.

That near monopoly is now showing signs of crumbling. Younger Cubans and more recent immigrants are turning away from the politics of the post-revolutionary exiles -- los historicos. One of the younger men drinking coffee, Ignacio Luzarraga, is a perfect example. He is 26 years old, a second-generation Cuban-American who will not follow family tradition at the polling booth on Nov. 2. He will be voting Democratic, for Sen. Kerry.

"The younger generation of Cuban-Americans will not follow suit just for the sake of following suit," he said. To talk to older Cuban-Americans about politics is to take a detour down four bitter decades of U.S.-Cuban relations, in which Republicans established themselves in Little Havana as the party of anti-communism, of the embargo and, in exile eyes, of revenge.

Luzarraga's concerns are like those of most other young Americans. He worries about Iraq, and believes President Bush "has not been honest as he should have been" about the reasons for going to war and its consequences for U.S. troops and for the Iraqi people. Tessie Arau is another Cuban Republican who will not vote for Bush this time. She runs a charter company organizing flights to Cuba for Cuban-Americans to see relatives. In May, the Bush administration ordered those trips to be cut to one every three years per person. The decision delighted hard-line historicos, who no longer have close ties to the island.

For many newer arrivals, typically economic migrants supporting relatives in Cuba, the measure was a disaster. "It's inhumane. There was a gentleman who killed himself because he knew he couldn't see his autistic son for three years," Arau said. "I don't see how that brings democracy. The reasons we came to this country were these freedoms, the freedom to travel where we want, and this administration is taking [that] away from us."

Talk of a splintering of the monolith is dismissed by Republicans. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a congresswoman from one of Cuba's grandest families, said: "We hear this every two years. I don't know how many elections it will take for people to stop talking about the fragmented Cuban-American vote."

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However, political and demographic splits in the community have shown up in polls. Among younger, U.S.-born Cuban-Americans, Kerry led Bush by 58 percent to 32 percent. Among immigrants who arrived after 1980, Kerry led 40 percent to 29 percent. The poll was by the New Democrat Network, an activist organization, but independent surveys show Bush losing ground in the community as a whole, and struggling to break through 70 percent. That is an important shift in a state Bush won by only 537 votes four years ago.

A poll by the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University found 36 percent of the community either planning to vote for Kerry or undecided. "The president will be hard-pressed to win Florida if 36 percent of Cuban-Americans who can vote vote for Kerry or abstain," said Damian Fernandez, the head of the institute.

While the wall is cracking in Miami, another Kerry opening is further north around Orlando, where Florida's Puerto Rican population is up a quarter since 2000, an electorate that traditionally has leaned Democratic. The Kerry campaign, however, has been slow to take up Florida's Hispanic vote. The candidate has yet to appear in person in Little Havana.

Kerry's office there is a break with the past, but all the literature so far is in English -- which in the words of a campaign official there was an "oversight."

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"Kerry hasn't done a very good job courting these voters," said the Cuban Research Institute's Fernandez. The challenger has just four weeks to try to capitalize on the president's weakness here. If he fails to do so, as far as Florida Democrats are concerned it will represent one of this election's greatest missed opportunities.


Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

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