The Republican party may no longer count on the automatic support of Florida’s Cuban-American community, but Dania Rudd still looks over her shoulder to make sure no one would hear her say she is a Democrat.
Older Cubans, like those who gather daily at Little Havana’s emblematic Maximo Gomez Park, tend to remain loyal to the Republican Party for its hard line on Cuban President Fidel Castro’s Communist government.
Cuban-born Rudd, who has lived in Miami for 49 years, says she is a Democrat, but casting a glance at the men playing dominoes in the Miami park, she whispered: “Here I can’t say it out loud, because they’d call me a Communist.”
Yet, opinion polls show the 1.2 million strong Cuban-American community in Florida is not as staunchly Republican as it once was.
Younger Cubans in particular tend to be less concerned about tough sanctions aimed at weakening the Communist government, and more interested in domestic issues such as health, jobs and education.
While hardliners rejoiced when President George W. Bush tightened travel restrictions to the Caribbean island this year, analysts believe this could cost him some votes, particularly from younger voters who have relatives in Cuba.
Democrats hope this will translate in extra votes for contender John Kerry, and are actively wooing Cuban-American voters.
Republicans are sticking to their guns. “The president made it clear that any bill that lands on his desk that interferes with his Cuban policy will be vetoed,” Vice-President Dick Cheney said at a recent rally in Miami, to cheers from Cuban-Americans who made up about half the audience of 300.
In the 2000 presidential election 81 percent Cuban-Americans in Florida voted for Bush. However a survey conducted in July showed that only 66 percent would now vote for him.
No one expects a massive crossover to Democratic ranks, but Kerry may not need that many votes to win the battleground state.
Opinion polls indicate the Republican and Democratic candidates have equal support in Florida, the state that gave Bush the presidency in 2000 by only 537 ballots after five weeks of recounts and legal wrangling.
The Democrats have a strong Cuban-American ally in the person of Joe Garcia, the former head of the powerful Cuban American National Foundation, who recently joined the New Democrat Network to help whip up support among the Hispanic community in Florida.
“We will see more Cubans voting Democrats,” he said. “Cubans understand that on domestic issues, the Democrats have an agenda that reflects their interests.”
Former housing secretary Mel Martinez, a Republican candidate for the Senate, doubts many Cubans would switch allegiance at this stage.
“I don’t think the Democrats are making inroads in trying to get the Cuban-American vote,” he told AFP.
“At some stage the Cuban-American Republican voting bloc will weaken, but it is still a solidly Republican voting bloc focused on Cuban issues,” he added.
An opinion poll conducted in July by the William Velasquez Institute and Mirram Global—two leading Latino research groups—indicated that 47 percent of Cuban-Americans considered a candidate’s policies toward Cuba to be “very important.”
But the issues of most concern were jobs and education.