By Madeline Baro Diaz | Sun Sentinel
Like many Cuban-Americans, Alex Pezon has been a staunch Republican most of his adult life.
Pezon, of Lake Worth, has voted to put George Herbert Walker Bush, Bob Dole and George W. Bush in the White House. This time around, however, Pezon is committed to voting for Democratic nominee John Kerry because he blames Bush for keeping him separated from his wife, Maydel, who is in Cuba waiting to come to the United States.
Although President Bush is expected to win the majority of South Florida’s Cuban-American vote, many Cuban-Americans have increasingly criticized his administration. That could be a problem for Bush, who by some estimates won about 80 percent of the Cuban vote in 2000. Any erosion of that support could be significant, since the 2000 presidential election was decided by just 537 votes.
The turning point for Pezon, who met his wife about three years ago in Cuba and married her last year, was the recent policy that restricts Cuban-Americans to one family visit every three years. Before the change, Cubans could go once a year without a Treasury license, and each year Pezon received permission for additional visits.
Because he thinks the Bush administration’s policy is too harsh, Pezon is pinning his hopes on Kerry’s promises to allow “principled travel” to the island.
“If your mom is in Cuba and she’s dying of some illness, you can’t go,” Pezon said. “Suppose your wife was having a child, you can’t go. Life’s not black and white, but the law now is like that.”
The Bush administration unveiled a series of measures in May, following months of pressure from some Cuban-American Republicans who decried what they perceived as a lack of action in Cuba policy by the Bush administration. The new policies, designed to cut the flow of U.S. dollars to Cuba’s government, included the regulations cutting down on family visits. While many Cuban exiles praised the move, others in the community protested the actions, saying they would divide families.
That’s why both parties are vying for the Cuban electorate, with Republicans trying to hold on to their traditional base and Democrats trying to make inroads.
“We’ve got to fire up the troops and get them to turn out,” said Cuban-American U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami.
Recent polls have shown that the president’s support among Cuban-Americans has declined as much as 20 percent while others have shown little if any decline. Veteran pollster Sergio Bendixen said his polls show about a 10 percent drop in support.
Four years ago, Bendixen’s polling showed that 84 percent of Cuban-Americans voters chose Bush and about 15 percent picked Gore. This time around, a July poll by Bendixen showed 69 percent of Cuban voters picking Bush, 21 percent choosing Kerry and 10 percent undecided.
Bendixen said the loss of support for Bush is probably because of a change in the makeup of the Cuban electorate rather than people switching loyalties. Although many stories have circulated about people like Pezon, who have gone from being lifelong Republicans to Kerry supporters, Bendixen said “it doesn’t show up in the polls.”
What explains that, Bendixen said, is the president’s strong support from “historic exiles,” those who came in the first decades after Fidel Castro took over the country in 1959—people who identify themselves as political refugees.
Many Cubans who came in the most recent decades, however, describe themselves as economic refugees and are more likely to align themselves with the Democratic Party. Also affecting the electorate’s makeup are younger generations of Cuban-Americans who have rejected their parents’ Republican leanings.
Still, the older exiles make up the vast majority of Cuban-American voters and they are expected to strongly support Bush again, Bendixen said.
But Democrats are doing their part to get Cuban-Americans who feel differently to also turn out and vote for Kerry. Joe Garcia, who served as executive director of the bipartisan Cuban American National Foundation for years, recently resigned to help the Washington-based New Democrat Network boost the Hispanic turnout in November.
In his previous post, Garcia, a Democrat, was a vocal critic of the Bush administration’s Cuba policy. Garcia had repeatedly asked for a review of the immigration policy that results in the repatriation of most Cuban immigrants caught at sea, among other issues.
“For 3 1/2 years this administration did absolutely nothing after getting the overwhelming support of the Cuban community,” Garcia said.
Ros-Lehtinen said many Cuban-Americans agree that the new Cuba measures are the right move. The challenges for Republicans on Election Day involve making sure Cuban-Americans vote, including logistics such as how to get elderly voters to the polls, she said. She expects a positive turnout.
“I think President Bush is going to be receiving a good, wonderful, hefty, percentage of the Cuban exile vote,” she said. “I think the president has done very well in fulfilling his promises to the exile community.”
Vigilia Mambisa, an anti-Castro exile group, has sponsored signature and letter drives expressing support for Bush and for the measures. Laura Vianello, a member of the organization, said the group wants stronger sanctions against Cuba and thinks Bush is on the right track.
“I believe that most Cubans are for Bush,” she said.
Pezon thinks the Cuba measures were an attempt to solidify the Cuban-American vote for Bush but won’t work.
“I’m still a Republican [but] I’m not going to support George Bush,” Pezon said. “I think what they were trying to do was trying to ignite the Cuban vote ... it’s going to [backfire] on him.”