Will Miami’s Cubans Vote Blue?

Every presidential cycle, the mainstream media turns to the question of Cuba and the vote of Miami Cuban Americans, respected for the constituency’s influence on the State of Florida and national politics.and national politics. And every presidential cycle the mainstream media dutifully reports US foreign policies toward Castro as the determinant factor.

It is easy to be confused: local Spanish language radio can’t get enough of Castro. Talk show hosts run political candidates through the mill like guayabera through the roller bars of an old washer, wringing every last drop of fealty to anti-Castro passions.

But the better clue to the election preference of Cuban Americans, often voting as a bloc in municipalities like Hialeah, is not the purity of ideology so much as the source of profit that drives the bloc.

The profits that Miami’s Cuban American business elite are defending originate no where near the Malecon, but mainly at city or county hall in downtown Miami where zoning and permitting changes for platted subdivisions rule the order of day and night.

In The New York Times, David Rieff leads the wondering crowd, whether the Republican hold on Miami in the presidential and Congressional elections will change because the Bay of Pigs generation has faded away. Legitimate challengers have emerged to contest three Republican Congressional districts. (“Will Little Havana Go Blue?”, July 13, 2008, New York Times Sunday Magazine)

“Call it the Miami Spring, or Cuban-American glasnost,” Reiff writes. Catchy, yes, but not predictive of the upcoming election as the fact that the “ownership society”, conceived by Bush loyalists from Florida’s real estate developers, is now wrecked on the shoals of toxic debt, fiscal recklessness, and moral hazard.

In Miami, Castro was a useful foil both to unify the Cuban American vote and, also, to organize local government contracts according to a pecking order and hierarchy that served to control Miami’s levers of power. County contracts to supply needed infrastructure for developers goes hand-in-hand with political power: the use of public funding whether for Section 8 housing or for roads all served the same purpose.

What accounts like Rieff’s usually miss about Cuban American politics is the sophisticated manner in which exercise of power has been administered by demonization of opposition in Miami and manipulation of US foreign policy to Cuba, in Washington. Miami’s political insiders are loathe to call it, for what it is. Leaders like US Senator Bob Graham, whose political career neatly meshed with the ascendency of Miami’s Latin builders, have family fortunes tied to the model. Local journalism, like The Miami Herald, might be closer to reporting the facts except for the outsized influence of its core advertising revenue, related to production home builders in suburbs.

From mining and moving limestone, to laying tarmac and painting lines on roads, to setting telephone cables and electricity lines, to water pipes and infrastructure, all link up to platted subdivisions in Miami’s remnant farmland and Everglades.

It was called the Cuban American National Foundation, but road paving contracts linking Miami to suburbs had as much to do with US foreign policy toward Cuba as the competition to see who could outlast the other: Jorge Mas Canosa or the bearded dictator himself.

The rise of Cuban American economic power, primarily tied to the conversion of farmland to platted subdivisions, dovetailed with the economic model– suburban sprawl– that is now in shambles.

Look to NYU economist Nouriel Roubini, not David Rieff, for instruction:

“The reality is that the U.S. has invested too much – especially in the last eight years – in building its stock of wasteful housing capital (whose effect on the productivity of labor is zero) and has not invested enough in the accumulation of productive physical capital (equipment, machinery, etc.) that leads to an increase in the productivity of labor and increases long run economic growth. This financial crisis is a crisis of accumulation of too much debt – by the household sector, the government and the country – to finance the accumulation of the most useless and unproductive form of capital, housing, that provides only housing services to consumers and has zippo effect on the productivity of labor. So enough of subsidizing the accumulation of even bigger MacMansions through the tax system and the GSEs.

And these MacMansions and the broader sprawl of suburbian/exurban housing are now worth much less – in NPV terms – not only because of the housing bust and the fall in home prices but also because: a) the high oil and energy prices makes it outrageously expensive to heat those excessively big homes; b) households living in suburbian and exurban homes that are far from centers of work, business and production that are not served by public transportation are burdened with transportation costs that are becoming unsustainable given the high price of gasoline. So on top of the housing bust that will reduce home values by an average of 30% relative to peak high oil/energy prices make the same large homes in the far boonies of suburbia/exurbia worth even less – probably another 10% down – because of the cost of heating palatial MacMansions and because of the cost of traveling dozens of miles to get to work in gas guzzling SUVs. Thus, it is time to stop this destruction of national income and wealth that a cockamamie decades long policy of subsidizing the accumulation of wasteful and unproductive housing capital has caused.”

In simple terms, the crash of the economic model built on suburban sprawl– a model that organized Cuban American politics for decades– will change US foreign policy to Cuba.

Even before the crash– the most significant in Florida since The Great Depression– Cuban American leaders in Miami were hungrily eyeing profits in Cuba available to corporations from Canada, Germany, and Spain.

With municipal budgets following the housing economy down in Florida, combined with surging fuel prices and the dawning realization that Miami has become the Rust Belt of Florida, there is a perfunctory feel to business and politics as usual and a dawning awareness in Miami’s business and political elite that there will soon be more money to be made in Cuba than Miami.

District 21 Congressional candidate Raul Martinez comes closest to saying so, buried deep in the NY Times report: “There is a fear in this community,” he said as we sat together in the living room of his home in Hialeah, “that if you speak out, then bad things will happen. I think that, in particular, businesspeople have been afraid of being denounced on talk radio or not getting contracts because they are too ‘controversial.’ ” This has now changed, he said, and the change is real, though he added, laughing, “It’s just that no one wanted to be the first person to call for it.”

“No one wanted to be the first person to call for it” is disinformation: reasonable Americans and even some Cuban Americans have blasted the failures of US foreign policy toward Cuba and called for change.

But Martinez is correct on the main part: the pecking order of the economic elite in Miami is determined by ways government contracts are ordered, parceled out and assigned. No one knows this better than Martinez, who served one of the region’s largest and politically influential municipalities–Hialeah–as a charismatic mayor and blood brother to Miami’s Latin builders.

More than any other political figure, Martinez understands the use of Spanish language radio as a codex for elections. It is the businesspeople who fund Spanish language radio– and the interminable flow of talk piling code on code, mostly related to Castro.

The “contracts” that people are afraid of “not getting” are really to the point: contracts from everything from Miami International Airport, to low income housing, to contracts for roadway and construction in Miami.

The wasteful and unproductive housing capital that Roubini describes as the root of massive jeopardy to the national economy is what made Cuban American developers and lobbyists like Sergio Pino into centimillionaires. Behind Pino is a whole train of decamillionaires, and behind the decamillionaires, the solomillionaires clawing their way onto the ladder of zoning changes in farmland and open space.

Some of Miami’s Latin builders fiercely love Cuba, nursing terrible personal, family tragedies, many wish longingly for the day they can return: but they do not imagine their return exclusively as children whose birthright was stolen, or even as revenge for distant crimes: the Miami Cuban political elite see their return to Cuba as triumphants who managed US foreign policy to Cuba for decades, not based on influence with a national audience in place like North Dakota so much as with the supply chain of builders, developers and speculators in Florida wetlands.

That is where the power was, right up to the present moment.

But there is a change in Cuba, as well, that must be registering on Miami’s Cuban American power elite: ordinary Cubans want economic opportunity, that’s clear enough. But for the most part, their reverence of Cuba and of their own leadership is a rejection of the Miami model of governance.

Cubans love Miamians but they do not for the main part love Miami. They want economic growth and opportunity but conflicted about the cost of absorbing a Miami power structure in foreclosure.

There is very little difference between the red and the blue model of Cuban American politics, except that Republican incumbents have boxed themselves in tighter than their Democratic challengers.

Now that the building boom is fully discredited, a boom that Cuban American developers substantially helped to foment in Tallahassee, Florida and Washington DC, change in US foreign policy to Cuba is beginning to carry the stamp of economic imperative.

It is time to move on, the old fashioned way in a new direction. As history would have it–because George W. Bush has made such a hash of the economy– in Miami the Democrats and Barack Obama will get there, first.








Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net