People chuckled when presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a Mormon raised in Michigan and elected in Massachusetts, bungled the names of Cuban-American politicians during a recent speech in Miami.
But when he mistakenly associated Fidel Castro’s trademark speech-ending slogan — Patria o muerte, venceremos! — with a free Cuba, listeners didn’t laugh. They winced.
Castro has closed his speeches with the phrase — in English, ‘’Fatherland or death, we shall overcome’’ — for decades.
‘’Clearly, that’s something he was ill-advised on or didn’t do his homework on,’’ said Hialeah City Council President Esteban Bovo. “When you get cute with slogans, you get yourself into a trap.’’
Romney’s fumble demonstrates the potential snags for state and national politicians trying to navigate the Cuban-American community of South Florida.
Ever since Ronald Reagan enthralled exiles by crying, ‘’Cuba sí, Castro no,’’ in a landmark 1983 visit to Little Havana, politicians have clamored, with mixed success, for the Spanish-speaking vote.
It’s not so different from the candidates who court Broward County’s heavily Jewish retirement condominiums, offering residents a free nosh and delivering their best schtick.
For politicians visiting Miami-Dade, glad-handing with patrons at the coffee window at Versailles has become as compulsory as kissing babies. But sipping café con leche and shouting ‘’Viva Cuba libre!’’ no longer guarantees votes in a community that has moved from the margins of society to the professional and political mainstream.
‘’Cuban-American voters have reached a level of political sophistication where the empty rhetoric of the past regarding Cuba’s liberation is no longer acceptable,’’ said state Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican. “Our community now demands specific policy proposals on achieving freedom and democracy for the Cuban people. Anything less is summarily rejected.’’
Cuban-American voters want to know: What do candidates think of the trade embargo and travel restrictions? What is their immigration policy? Would they try to indict Raúl Castro for the Brothers to the Rescue attack?
Romney delivered a speech to the Miami-Dade Republican Party March 9 that was heavy on anti-communist rhetoric but light on policy details. He also condemned the Venezuelan president who has embraced Castro. That’s when he tripped.
‘’Hugo Chávez has tried to steal an inspiring phrase — Patria o muerte, venceremos,’’ Romney said. “It does not belong to him. It belongs to a free Cuba.’’
No, it doesn’t, said University of Miami Professor Jaime Suchlicki.
`BELONGS TO FIDEL’
‘’It belongs to Fidel,’’ said Suchlicki, an expert on Cuban history. “I don’t know where [Romney] got that.’’
The Romney campaign did not explain how the words got into the speech.
‘’Gov. Romney was trying to make the point that the phrase should not be used by oppressors, but by liberators,’’ said campaign spokeswoman Gail Gitcho. “It was an unfortunate error in the language that certainly wasn’t meant to offend.’’
Al Cárdenas, a prominent Cuban-American Republican who is advising Romney, said he understood what he meant.
‘’This is a man who abhors Castro,’’ he said. “From a style standpoint people can say what they want, but on substance he’s where he needs to be.’’
Romney punctuated his speech with ‘’Libertad, libertad, libertad!‘’ to show his support for freedom in Cuba. But to some, he was echoing a line from Scarface, a movie notorious for its stereotyped portrayal of Cuban immigrants.
State Rep. Rene Garcia, for one, said he was ‘’unimpressed.’’ The Hialeah Republican grimaced when Romney called the state House Speaker ‘’Mario Rubio’’ — his first name is Marco — and mispronounced the names of U.S. Reps. Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
‘’He used the Cuba issue way too much,’’ Garcia said. “I don’t want to judge a man based on one speech alone, but it bothered me that he didn’t get the names right.’’
The gaffes were surprising, considering that Romney has surrounded himself with savvy Florida advisors. He recently hired Alicia Gonzalez, a Cuban-American media consultant.
‘’He’s not one of those politicians who comes down here and says the Cuban vote is important and then when Radio Mambí calls, they can’t make time for them,’’ said Gonzalez, adding that Romney is scheduled for an interview with the Spanish-language station today.
Courting Cuban-American exiles, who have lost their livelihoods and faced jail for political dissent, can be like treading through an emotional minefield. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry caused a stir in 2004 when he said he favored ‘’principled travel’’ to Cuba. The incident reflects how a candidate’s every word on Cuba is scrutinized and potentially exploited by critics eager to hurl the soft-on-communism epithet.
Sometimes a gaffe is more cultural than political. At a 2004 rally in Little Havana, a New York City politician called for ‘’Latino’’ empowerment.
‘’That’s a message that doesn’t resonate whatsoever with a Cuban-American audience,’’ said political consultant Fred Balsera. “Miami Cubans call themselves Cuban American or Hispanic.’’