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They're Many Things, Except Culturally Conservative

The Politics of Cuban-Americans

by SAUL LANDAU and NELSON P. VALDES

Several of our friends expressed shock when they learned that President Obama had won some 48% of south Florida’s Cuban-American vote. One asked: how can you explain that a reputedly reactionary community would yield such a high percentage vote for a Democrat?

The answer relates to confusion. The Cuban Americans in the Miami area have gotten mislabeled. They do not belong in the social or “cultural conservative” category. Some sectors of the “latino” community do have conservative social views. But apart from their harsh position on the Cuban revolution, Cuban Americans do not strongly oppose divorce, women’s rights, social security, social welfare payments, or sexual preference.

Historically, they, who left the island soon after the revolutionaries seized power, have taken a staunch opposition approach to Cuba’s revolutionary government. Yet, many of those same anti-Castro Cuban “conservatives” showed no opposition when President Fulgencio Batista introduced “big government,” or strong state intervention in the Cuban economy. Indeed, since 1934 Batista used the state to play a major role in transforming and regulating Cuba’s economy.

These Cubans – conservative only in their opposition to revolution — have never become “libertarians,” nor have they favored laissez-faire capitalism. Some of the major fortune makers in pre-revolutionary Cuba used of that highly regulated economy to amass their wealth. So-called sugar king Julio Lobo reaped his fortune from a thoroughly regulated sugar market. Pre-revolutionary Cuba’s government had divided sugar profits among the large, medium and small growers, and assured each partner of his proper share.

Those who left Cuba in 1959 and the early 1960s, now Cuban Americans, have favored Republican or Democratic candidates strictly on the basis of their policies on US-Cuba relations. Even south Florida’s arch reactionary – on Cuba policy — Congresswoman Ileana Ros Lehtinen champions gay rights, social security, Medicare and other so-called entitlements. In Cuba, those entitlements are called human rights. But the retired Jews who inhabit parts of Miami Beach would hardly vote for a truly reactionary Member of Congress. Ros-Lehtinen’s compensates her staunch anti-Castro views by her strong pro-Israel stance and her legislative devotion to Medicare and other benefits received by retired people.

So, post election analysts should not see the size of Obama’s Cuban-American vote as a sign that large sectors of the south Florida community have changed their basic views. The Republicans threatened the social safety net and supplemental security income that many Cuban Americans – and elderly Jews — depend on. Republican David Rivera, who denounced some  Cuban Americans  for spending their social security benefits on traveling to Cuba to visit relatives lost his congressional seat to Joe Garcia, a more moderate Cuban American Democrat. Rivera had called it an “abuse, that these people [Cuban Americans] are receiving these benefits and are traveling subsidizing a terrorist country with those benefits” as if Rivera possessed the moral authority to determine how his constituents spent their money. Moreover, Rivera even introduced legislation to amend the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act so to prevent non-US citizens of Cuban descent who live in the United States from traveling to the island. An unpopular position.

Cuban-Americans also differ from other so-called conservatives, in their lack of fascination with fundamentalist Protestantism and the social mores that results from these evangelical, born-again faiths. In Miami, as in Cuba, un-wanted pregnancies often get dealt with at the abortion clinic. Divorce is hardly a taboo among Cuban Americans, who also like to gamble, drink their rum and have good times partying.

Some traditional Cuban men in Miami still score social “points” by acquiring young mistresses. They do share strong anti-homosexual feelings with non-Cuban American right wingers, however, but do not make gun-ownership rights into the equivalent of a biblical commandment. Nor are many Cubans born again Christians; besides Santeria is certainly more fun, down-to-earth and expansive.

Libertarian members of the Republican Party do not take a hard line against Cuba, which distances them from much of the old guard who lost property, privilege, status and honor to the revolutionaries. Newly elected Arizona Senator Jeff Flake for example is a proponent of dropping the embargo against Cuba. Indeed, the anti-Castro stalwarts make hating the revolution the only requisite for membership in their political cause. Even anti-Castro socialists can belong.

Those Cubans who came to Florida some 50+ years ago, and the succeeding waves over the decades did not constitute a politically homogeneous bloc. The Cuban American Foundation of the 1980s and 90s, which took a very hard line against the revolutionary government, moderated its stance when Joe Garcia, now in Congress,  became Foundation President. But the Cubans also have a left wing, albeit small, and a large group of sons and daughters of emigrants who have become very Americanized and whose politics do not revolve around those of the island.

Fifty three years have elapsed since the revolutionaries took power in Cuba and the first wave of Cubans landed in Miami. Many expected to return quickly to the island after the US Marines cleared the way, but since then major changes have taken place in the realm of expectations. Only the naïve and utopian now think the Cuban government will soon fall; fewer think Washington will take action to make that happen. Cuban Americans over the decades have become Americanized, especially the progeny of the early migrants, and they share the widespread panoply of beliefs that exist throughout the country, even though they reside in Miami, America’s poorest city.  (The award was bestowed by the U.S. Census Bureau, which calculated that a greater percentage of Miami’s residents were living in poverty than any other U.S. city with a population over 250,000.)

Few Cuban-Americans, however, rate the term “conservative.”

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Nelson P. Valdes is Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico