Andres Oppenheimer | Miami Herald
President Bush’s honeymoon with Mexican-American and Cuban-American voters has come to an abrupt end. All of a sudden, Bush will face a tougher time than previously thought to win a sizable portion of the 6.5 million Hispanic voters who pollsters say will be critical in next year’s election.
Two unrelated events—the Republican vote in Congress to regulate the ID cards issued by Mexican consulates in the United States, and the administration’s decision to return to Cuba 12 suspected boat hijackers who tried to flee the island—have drawn angry reactions from Hispanic leaders.
Mexican-American community leaders were infuriated by the House of Representatives’ July 16 approval, with nearly solid Republican support, of an amendment demanding greater U.S. scrutiny of the more than one million ID cards issued by Mexican consulates to help undocumented workers open bank accounts or get access to local government services.
More than 100 U.S. banks are accepting these cards, as well as dozens of local governments. Among other things, the ID cards have helped undocumented workers avoid carrying cash and becoming easy targets for muggers, and to make bank money transfers to their relatives in Mexico without paying exorbitant commissions to shady remittance companies.
‘‘There is a lot of apprehension about this measure,’’ said Arturo Vargas, head of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO), which groups about 4,700 elected Latino officials around the country, referring to the House vote.
Harry Pachon, director of the Tomas Rivera Institute, a think tank on Latino issues with the University of Southern California, said the measure “will raise suspicions that there still is an anti-immigrant strain in the Republican Party.’‘
Mexican Americans, who make up about 60 percent of the U.S. Latino vote, used to vote for the Democratic Party by more than 80 percent. But Bush, a former Texas governor who speaks some basic Spanish—managed to win a record 35 percent of the Mexican-American vote in the 2000 election.
Bush’s decision to return the 12 suspected hijackers to Cuba drew an even more outraged response from Cuban-American leaders.
‘‘This will cost them,’’ said Jorge Mas Santos, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, the best-known Cuban exile lobbying group, in a speech last weekend.
Foundation Executive Director Joe Garcia says Bush’s decision to return the 12 Cubans only a few weeks after Cuban dictator Fidel Castro executed three people for trying to hijack a boat to flee the island ‘‘goes far beyond’’ former President Bill Clinton’s policy of returning Cuban rafters caught at sea.
Under Clinton’s policy, rafters caught before they reached U.S. shores were returned to Cuba and set free on the island under U.S. supervision, Garcia said. What Bush did now, by getting Cuban government assurances that the 12 boaters would not get more than 10-year prison terms, amounts to ‘‘negotiating jail terms with a country that our own State Department lists as a terrorist state,’’ Garcia said.
While Cuban-American voters represent only 7 percent of the Hispanic vote, they are seen by many pollsters as a key bloc that Bush would need to win Florida and New Jersey in next year’s presidential election. In 2000, Bush won 80 percent of the Cuban-American vote.
‘‘If the Republicans don’t get 80 percent of the Cuban-American vote, they get in trouble. That has always been the case and is still so,’’ said Dario Moreno, a Florida International University pollster specializing in the Cuban-American community. “The Democrats are strong in Florida. There are 300,000 more Democrats than Republicans in the state.’‘
Democrats, of course, are making the most of Bush’s new troubles with Hispanics. In Congress, they called the Republicans’ vote on the ID cards ‘‘anti-Hispanic,’’ and Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman, campaigning in South Florida, called the decision on the Cuban boaters an “abandonment of American values.’‘
What are the Republicans saying? They are changing the subject, which makes me think they know they have a Hispanic problem. When I asked Chad Colby, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, whether the ID cards and the boaters crisis had brought Bush’s honeymoon with Hispanic voters to an end, he said that ‘‘in the large spectrum,’’ Bush is providing better education standards, more housing and more tax cuts to Hispanics, and that “those are things that they’re going to look towards.’‘
My guess? We will soon see Bush sending love letters to Mexican President Vicente Fox—who has been in Bush’s doghouse since he opposed the war on Iraq—and other Latin American leaders, and he may do something about Cuba, such as increasing funds for TV Mart� and Radio Mart� broadcasts to the island. The honeymoon is over, and I don’t see Bush resigning himself to losing the Hispanic vote.