Marian Wilkinson reports from Miami | TheAge.com.au
Little Havana, the Cuban corner of Miami, is the last place in Florida where George Bush would expect to find himself in trouble.
But when the veteran anti-Castro rebel, Pepe Hernandez, sitting in the offices of the Cuban American National Foundation, started to add up the votes of Cuban Americans in Florida, his conclusion was unexpected. “If John Kerry can get just 30 per cent of the Cuban vote, he would most likely win Florida,” he said.
Mr Hernandez who once risked his life on the beach at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in a CIA-backed coup against Castro, explained his conclusions. “The community has been changing substantially, especially over the last 10 years,” he said. “Los Historicos (the old ones who arrived when Castro defeated the rebellion) they are living in history, out of the passions, experiences and tragedies of twenty and thirty and forty years ago”. Los Historicos are a substantial element of the Cuban-American community and they turn out to vote in large numbers.
“They are older and very much Republican,” Mr Hernandez continued. But the new immigrants and children of the exiles, are changing the voting patterns of the nearly one million strong community.
“Cuba is still an issue but it is less important to them,” Mr Hernandez said. “Their sympathies are more with the Democrats than the Republicans.” Just this month, Mr Hernandez and his foundation lost their executive director, 39-year-old Joe Garcia, when he went to work for the New Democrat Network. This new Hispanic lobby group has launched a tough anti-Bush advertisement on Spanish radio and television in Miami.
In 1984 the Republicans had a stranglehold on the Cuban vote when President Ronald Reagan won the Cuban vote by 94 per cent. But in his 1996 re-election bid, President Bill Clinton, appealing to the newer immigrants and their economic interests, clawed back 39 per cent of the vote.
In 2000 the emotionally charged case of the little Cuban boy, Elian Gonzales, who was caught between his Cuban American relatives in Miami and his father in Cuba, stalled that trend. The controversy sunk Democratic candidate Al Gore’s hopes with the Cubans and George Bush wrapped up 82 per cent of their vote. Mr Gore lost Florida by just 537 votes. If he had increased his Cuban vote by only 1 per cent he would have won.
President Bush and his chief political strategist, Karl Rove, are acutely aware of these numbers. Keeping the Cuban base for the President is crucial. So, according to Mr Hernandez, Mr Rove came up with an idea to energise “Los Historicos”.
Recently, the White House brought down new measures against Cuba. The most controversial one allowed Cuban Americans to visit their families back home only once every three years instead of once a year. The idea was to stop the flow of US dollars from the family travellers.
But the measure has been unpopular with newer Cuban Americans and led to ugly splits among Los Historicos. “In my opinion they made a mistake,” said Mr Hernandez. “Because, largely, the Cuban people continue to place the family in front of everything else. That is going to have some effect on the way Cubans vote in November.”
It seems bizarre that President Bush could lose Florida in a week when Senator Kerry is trailing in the polls. But down in Little Havana, Mr Hernandez sees trouble ahead for the Republicans.