The Center for International Policy’s Cuba Project has released its latest conference report titled Election 2012: What Cuban Americans Stand to Lose.

On October 4, Elizabeth Newhouse and Wayne Smith, of CIP’s Cuba Project, hosted a conference in Miami to help raise awareness of what was at stake for Cuban Americans in the 2012 Presidental election. After the votes were cast, it was clear that the majority of Cuban Americans in Florida sent a strong message when they voted in favor of President Barack Obama, providing him with 53% of Florida’s Cuban-American vote on Election Day.

Under President Obama’s first term, US - Cuba relations saw vast improvements as Obama allowed for unlimited family visits and remittances for Cuban Americans, and “purposeful” travel for others. These policies opened up a cultural exchange not seen since before the Cold War, and as one panelist put it, “Although the last wall of the Cold War has not come down, culture is making holes in it little by little.”

Now that Obama has a second term in office, “three more years of his travel and remittance policies will ‘change the whole ball game’ in Cuba.” According to Wayne Smith, although Obama was forced to move cautiously on Cuba during his first term, we can expect to see him move more energetically toward a policy of reconciliation with his reelection.

Election 2012: What Cuban Americans Stand to Lose

A Conference Report by Elizabeth Newhouse October 2012 by the Center for International Policy

The next four years could initiate an approach to U.S. Cuba policy that is either “virtuous” or “vicious” depending on who is elected president, said panelist Arturo Lopez-Levy at the October 4 conference in Miami, hosted by the Center for International Policy, on the importance of voting to engagement with Cuba. Held at the historic Tower Theater in the heart of Little Havana—a first for such an event—the conference highlighted for Cuban Americans how much is likely to be lost if President Obama’s policies on Cuba—unlimited family visits and remittances for Cuban Americans, “purposeful” travel for others—are supplanted by those of a Romney administration.

Governor Romney has promised that if elected he would revert to the George W. Bush rules: Cuban-American family visits only once every three years, very limited remittances, and the end of people-to-people travel. A return to such a stringent policy would bring back the question for Cuban Americans of “did you want to go see them before they died, or did you want to go to their funeral?” said panelist Tessie Aral, president of ABC Travel.

A “virtuous” Cuba policy, explained Lopez-Levy, would not only preserve and expand such engagement, but it would also help create conditions for greater openness inside Cuba. A “vicious” policy that goes back to the Bush era, on the other hand, would further isolate the country and hinder reform. Lawyer Tony Zamora, another panelist, believes that three more years of Obama’s travel and remittance policies will “change the whole ball game” in Cuba.

The power of culture to help change the ball game was stressed by Professor Lillian Manzor of the University of Miami—and the opportunities for cultural exchanges could also be in jeopardy if travel is curtailed. In the words of a Miami Herald op-ed, “the arts will be the hammer that deals the fatal blow to the political dilemma.” A 10-day Miami arts festival in 2001 brought over a delegation of 29 Cuban artists, sparking “a sense of a future for Miami.” Since then—and especially in the last four years— Cuban artists, musicians, and other cultural figures have continued to visit, proving that dialogue on both the artistic and human levels is eminently possible. “Although the last wall of the Cold War has not come down, culture is making holes in it little by little,” Manzor said.

Encouraging young and moderate Cuban Americans to become active in the U.S. political system is another way to promote reconciliation, asserted Alejandro Barreras, like Lopez-Levy a director and founder of CAFÉ (Cuban Americans for Engagement), a new grass-roots organization forming across the United States. In his visits to the U.S. Congress, Barreras noted, he is repeatedly told “we never hear from Cuban Americans on your side, but we hear often from the other side.” If President Obama is reelected, a major CAFÉ goal will be to promote rapprochement with Cuba as a highly desirable legacy, said Barreras.

Polls organized by Guillermo Grenier of Florida International University highlight the role of Cubans in the Florida election. Fully 35% of Miamians are Cuban; 31% a range of other Hispanic nationalities; 15% Anglo; and 17% black. “Right now the way Cubans move is the way everyone moves,” Grenier said. But the Cuban population is rapidly changing. More than a third of the current population has arrived since 1994, with more Cubans coming in the years 2000-2009 than in any other decade in history. It is these young and newly arrived Cubans who must be brought into the political process. Their sheer numbers alone have softened the Miami line. Whereas in 2000 support for dialogue with Cuba was at 46%, it is now 58%. Quite simply, if you came from Cuba after 1994, you favor dialogue. The challenge is to get that group to acquire U.S. citizenship (only 60% are citizens) and to register to vote (only 35% do).

The importance of the ballot box to bringing about change was echoed by Alvaro Fernandez, community activist and creator of the Latino Vote Project. To effectively promote their cause, he said, moderate Cuban Americans must not only vote, but learn to work in coalitions with each other and with others in the community and to expand their networks. There is a game changer underway that could have a significant effect on Florida’s vote: Puerto Ricans in central Florida will soon supplant Cuban Americans as the state’s largest Hispanic voting bloc. Whereas 56% of Cuban Americans are registered Republicans, the vast majority of other Hispanics vote Democratic.

The Center for International Policy wishes to express its appreciation to the Christopher Reynolds Foundation, Gulfstream Air Charters and our supporters for their generous support, without which neither the conference nor this report would have been possible.

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