In the beginning of the Cuban exile story, things looked very different from what they appear today. Today, Cuban-American participation in the Republican party seems natural; part of the environment of south Florida, like waves in the Atlantic or iguanas sunning themselves along the banks of canals. It is difficult to imagine that this state of affairs was not inevitable. It was not. Cuban-American Republicanism is a result of specific social processes that, when inspected can provide Democrats a way forward in organizing Cuban Americans. Here are four lessons from the Republicanization of Cuban Americans that might assist Democrats in reversing the trend.
1) Don’t Swallow the Kennedy Creation Myth
It is “common knowledge” that Cubans turned to the Republican Party of Kennedy’s betrayal during the Bay of Pigs invasion when he refused to authorize air support for the landing force. And I am certain that many Cubans of the period and today hate Kennedy for his actions or lack thereof. But Kennedy’s decision to secure a laughable measure of plausible deniability at the expense of Cuban invaders did not inevitably lead to Cuban Republicanism
For the first two decades of their existence as “exiles” in the United States, the main point of contention for Cubans was not deciding which party to join but whether to participate or not in the politics of this “foreign” country. To many, becoming citizens of the United States meant turning their back on the struggle of returning to Cuba. True Cubans resisted the temptation of becoming a citizen of the United States; of fluffing their nest in the emerging Cuban enclave in Miami. Still, in an analysis of the 1968 election results published by the Miami Herald, the small number of Cubans who had become citizens split evenly between the two parties: Democrats (39.9%) and Republicans (40.1%) with 20% Independent voters.
The 1976 elections saw Cubans manning the trenches for both parties in the State of Florida. Alfredo Duran, a Bay of Pigs veteran, held the position of Democratic Party State Chairman. Al Cardenas served as chairman of Gerald Ford’s Latin community campaign in Dade County. The growing Cuban American electorate split its allegiance between the two parties. Maria de los Angeles Torres in her 1999 book In the Land of Mirrors reports that most Cubans in the 1970s registered as Democrats. In his recent book Hispanic Republicans, Geraldo Cadava states that Carter won 75% of the Cuban American vote against Gerald Ford. Those are national estimates, but this divided allegiance, evident fifteen years after the Bay of Pigs, does nothing to support the universality of the political creation myth. Cuban Americans still saw the Democratic Party as viable.
The narrative of the “Kennedy betrayal leading to Republicanism” began to take shape in the press, probably as an echo of true sentiments expressed by some in the streets of Little Havana. Even as Democratic Party registrations remained high, the local media consistently profiled Cubans as hostile to the Democratic Party “since Kennedy.” This narrative of antipathy towards the tragic lord of Camelot had the effect of “Othering” the Cubans; of identifying them as political outsiders in the Democratic stronghold of South Florida. It also distorted reality, at least at the level of party registration. County-wide, Cuban democrats had an estimated 40,000 to 34,000 registration advantage over Cuban Republicans going into the 1976 Presidential elections.
Still, disenchantment with the Democratic party was growing. In the Little Havana precinct #657, Cuban Democrats held a 2-1 registration margin over Republicans but Ford won the precinct by a similar margin over Carter. Dominantly Democratic Hialeah precincts split evenly between the two candidates.
What is important is that there was no particular stigma associated with the Democratic Party. No red baiting of its supporters. Voting for Ford was based, according to Cuban voters interviewed by the Herald, on his experience governing at the Federal level. Democratic candidates running for local offices received strong support from Cuban voters. All six Republican Cubans running for local office during the same election cycle lost. The Democratic party was not out of the game in the mid-70s.
2) The Republican Party Targeted Cubans
The decision of the Republican Party to organize Cuban-Americans was a strategic decision having little to do with the charismatic persona of Ronald Reagan. During the 1980s, the Republican party identified and invested in Latino talent throughout the country, particularly in strong Democratic regions. The goal was to diminish the winning margin of Democrats in statewide and national elections.
The political pioneers in the Cuban American Republican pantheon were Iliana Ros-Lehtinen, Roberto Casas, and Humberto Cortina, all elected to the State House of Representatives in 1982. Other committed Cuban Americans, such as Al Cardenas, scoured the community for talent and found plenty. Cuban-Americans were hungry for recognition and the Party was hungry for a base in South Florida. These were unfriendly times for Republicans in Florida. Democrats held a majority of seats in Tallahassee until 1995.
Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who lost to Humberto Cortina in the 1982 State Representative election running as a Democrat, switched parties in 1985 and, found support in the Republican party for his populist persona. As a State Representative and later as a Congressman, he worked closely with organized labor in South Florida. He and other Cuban American state representatives frequented the meetings of building trades and public sector labor unions and made working-class Cuban Americans part of their constituencies.
The Democratic Party in Florida during this period was unwilling to promote Cuban American candidates and still clung to exclusionary domestic agenda, including support for the English-only provisions. In the 1984 elections, Reagan received 30 percent of the national Latino vote and 80 percent of the Cuban American vote. Entering the next decade there were eight Cuban State legislators, two state Senators, and one Congressional representative in office. All Republicans.
3) Cubans Were looking for a home in the 1980s. The Republicans Built them a House.
Cubans in the 1970s and early 1980s were alienated from other groups in South Florida. Bob Simms, head of the Metro Dade Community Relations Board said in 1983, “You’ve got three distinct communities here with very little interaction between them.” Both Anglos and African Americans feared and resisted a perceived Cuban takeover. The Black community castigated Cubans for being Spanish-speaking Anglos engaging in similar discriminatory practices while benefiting from government resources at the expense of established minority communities. The Official English ordinance passed in 1980 (repealed in 1993) after a bitter battle cast by the Anglos as a fight for control of the county. After Mariel, Americans in general, according to surveys of the time, viewed Cubans as undesirable neighbors. Cuban Americans were not feeling the love.
Even the Cuban elite was seen as strangers in a strange land. In January 1983, The Miami Herald dedicates its Sunday Tropics Magazine to “introducing” the Cuban-American elite to American Miami. Entitled The New Power, the articles presented the achievements of luminaries of the Cuban success story —the Codinas, Pantins, Masvidals of this world–to challenge “the widespread presumption that Miami’s Cubans are not really Americans, that they are a foreign presence here.” Even Jorge Mas Canosa was described as a “near unknown in Miami.”
Into the middle of this quagmire of alienation, the Republican Party and Ronald Reagan rode on white horses. The Party promised a way forward, a way of integrating into the American sociopolitical system.
3) Don’t Believe that the Democrats were easy on Cuba
Indeed, the Reagan hard-line stance against socialist governments in the hemisphere and internationally garnered the respect of many Cuban Cold Warriors. But it is not true that the Democratic Party was “soft” on Cuba. When it came to U.S./Cuba policy, CANF made sure that both parties knew the script. It donated generously to cold-war democrats like Congressman Dante Fascell and Claude Pepper and supported Reagan’s campaign against the Contras in Nicaragua. And, for all his bluster, Reagan tried several times to entice Fidel Castro to “join the western hemisphere” as he put it in his journal, by encouraging him to break with the Soviet. His successor, George H. W. Bush did not support the passage of the Cuban Democracy Act until his Democratic challenger for the presidency, Bill Clinton, forced his hand by announcing support. Republicans were not significantly more isolationist than Democrats towards Cuba. Until Obama changed the rules of the game.
4) Leadership Matters. A Democratic Comeback is Possible.
By the time Obama left the White House in 2016, sixty-four percent of Cuban Americans in South Florida supported his engagement initiatives, including 35% of Republicans. Republican registrations among Cuban-Americans were at an all-time low. But the No Party Affiliations registry benefited from the shifting allegiances. White House leadership matters but without a strategy for long-term engagement, the Democratic party remained on a slippery footing with Cuban Americans.
Currently, three of the six State Senate districts of Miami-Dade are represented by Democrats (Jones, Pizzo, Tadeo). Thirty-nine percent of Miami-Dade Hispanic voters live within these Democratic Districts. The percentage of Latino voters in Miami-Dade Democratic Senate Districts ranges from 70% in Annette Tadeo’s district to 27% in Shevrin Jones’.
On the House side, eight of the eighteen seats are occupied by Democrats who represent 30% of all Hispanic voters in Miami Dade County. The range here is from majority Hispanic Districts (Nicholas Duran and Michael Griego) to quarter Hispanic Districts (Christopher Benjamin and Dottie Joseph).
These districts provide Democrats with a strong foundation from which to build alliances among Latino and other minority communities as well as expand the exposure of the Democratic Party throughout the Cuban/Latino enclave of South Florida. These Democratic leaders are the gate-keepers between the party and the street.
Democrats have to commit to playing the long game. Engage Cuban Americans and all Latinos in South Florida in discussions about healthcare, labor rights, taxes, education, the transportation challenges facing the community, as well as how to deal with Cuba. This was the mission for Republicans decades ago and remains the mission for Democrats if they chose to accept it. Miami Cubans will not become card-carrying Democrats overnight but engagement with the Cuban-Americans is in the best interest of the Party and the community. This is the time to do it when it is clear that the Party can win the presidency without Florida or the Cuban American vote.