By Zachary K. Johnson - CORRESPONDENT
Zachary K. Johnson is a freelance journalist working in conjunction with the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.
The crowd of George W. Bush supporters yelling and waving campaign signs in Little Havana on Sunday night before Election Day was fueled, in part, by the Cuban coffee Ava Gonzalez poured.
She peeled tiny, plastic cups off a stack wedged under her chin, her hands free to decant the sweet, potent brew by the thimble-full to some of the dozens of Cuban-Americans who gathered on Calle Ocho - also, and rarely, known as Southwest 8th Street - which runs through the heart of Miami’s Cuban American community.
Passing cars, some with Bush-Cheney signs hanging out their windows, slowed down to honk as the crowd in front of the Cafe’ Versailles chanted, as they had each night for the two weeks leading up to the election, that Miami was with the president: “Bush. Amigo. Miami esta contigo.”
Translation of the latter phrase: “Miami is with you.”
They were right, of course, about Cuban voters, who overwhelmingly voted for Bush. The non-partisan William C. Velazquez Institute’s exit poll showed 70 percent of Cuban voters in Florida chose Bush, and a Los Angeles Times found 76 percent.
They continued chanting long after the Kerry-Edwards campaign office across the street had closed for the day. Earlier, Democrat volunteers from across the country mingled, and local ground forces in the tiny field office scrambled for a piece of the Cuban vote.
It may look like a drubbing for Democrats, but this constituency traditionally votes Republican - 80 percent of Cubans in Florida voted for Bush in 2000.
A shoulder-high Kerry-Edwards poster leaned against a wall; it might have been the same one wedged behind the garbage bin in the parking lot three days later after the Democrats cleared out of Little Havana.
Before the election, Republicans courted Cuban voters by pointing to the Bush administration’s hard-line policy toward Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Democrats hoped the younger generation of Cuban Americans would be angry at Bush for imposing tighter restrictions on travel and money transfers to Cuba.
But in interviews with dozens of Cuban Americans before and after the election, it was clear these voters don’t fit neatly into the profiles the pollsters and the political consultants have created for them.
“It’s a very educated community that can make an educated decision,” said Gus Garcia, a Cuban American outreach coordinator for Kerry in Miami and a former candidate for state Senate.
“It’s not youth versus the old, as you see in the media, it’s whether you speak English,” said Garcia, while organizing canvassers in front of the Calle Ocho field office. Breaching the language barrier opens up voters to more issues, he said.
He predicted Cuban women voting for Kerry would do so because they are pro-choice on abortion and because they are worried about Iraq, he said.
While the Democrats organized Sunday afternoon before the election, Anezka and Carlos Rios waited in line to vote a few miles away in front of West Miami City Hall, just off Calle Ocho. Voters in Florida can vote up to two weeks before elections in limited polling places around the county. The couple came here from their home, further south, in West Kendall.
They support a tough Cuba embargo, but their votes were decided on other issues. Anezka Rios, 26, said she opposes abortion and thinks Bush would do a better job protecting the country from terrorists. “If we get Kerry, we’re just going to be negotiating,” she said.
Carlos Rios, 32, said securing Iraq is difficult, but he understands the bigger picture. “That’s the price of freedom,” he said.
Ivonne Jolain was nine when she left Cuba. She remembers being hungry, seeing her father sent to a labor camp and getting labeled “parasites” by many here when her family decided to leave her homeland. “I do know the hardship of Communism ... It was degrading.”
But she doesn’t support the Cuban embargo - It only hurts the people and isn’t capable of bringing down Castro - and policies regarding Cuba don’t determine her vote, Jolain said.
She voted for Bush because of security, which will increase with success in Iraq, she said.
“At this point, we need to finish what we start, otherwise it will be dangerous for our country,” she said.
Jolain spoke quietly and deliberately, and it was clear she believed her vote too important to be decided by party allegiance or community pressure. Registered as an Independent, over the years she cast her ballot for Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and George W. Bush.
Her 67-year-old mother, however, always votes Republican, Jolain said. “No matter what.”
A pair of leafleteers surreptitiously handed out literature for local candidates at the back of the queue, which was filled with voters waiting two hours and more, some hoisting umbrellas for shade.
Away from the line, Maria E. Salinas, 53, waved a Kerry-Edwards poster. Earlier, she helped her elderly mother, a diehard Republican, vote for Bush, she said.
Nearby, social worker Hermino Cernuda, 42, held up a Bush-Cheney sign because Kerry is too left-wing, he said. Sporting Kerry-Edwards buttons, first-time voters Nicole Rodriguez and Nathalie Jolain (no relation to Ivonne), both 18, waited in line.
“Younger people, like us, have a more open mind,” said Jolain.
They both said they’d like to visit Cuba one day, but not if the trip meant money they spent on the journey supported Castro. Both said they were voting because they opposed the war in Iraq and because Bush threatened abortion rights. Their parents all planned to vote for Bush, they said.
“Like most families - like the country - we are divided,” said Ivonne Jolain, Nathalie’s mother, the next day in a cafe in Coconut Grove. “Her views are more to her age.”
Cuban Americans’ strong allegiance to the Republican Party is unique among other voters in the country’s growing Hispanic demographic, said Rosalind Gold, senior director of policy and research at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
Hispanic voters as a whole showed their votes were up for grabs. Kerry won a nationwide majority, but Bush increased his support among Hispanic voters this election, according to an analysis of several exit polls done by the National Council of La Raza.
Ultimately, the Democrats’ toehold on the 550,000 eligible Cuban voters in Florida was not enough to turn the state, which Bush won by almost 400,000 votes.
Most Cubans’ votes are influenced by the communist revolution that displaced them from their homeland, and Democrats would have to move very strongly against Cuba if they ever want to win the Cuban vote, said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami.
“If they live in Iowa, it’s easier to forget Cuba, but not here,” he said.
Some younger Cubans do vote on issues other than Cuba, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will grow more liberal, become less conservative or vote Democrat, he said. Many Cubans trace their distrust of Democrats to the presidency of John F. Kennedy, who made concessions to the Soviet Union about Cuba after the missile crisis and presided over the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Suchlicki said.
In April 1961, Castro’s forces routed U.S.-trained and -equipped Cuban exiles who invaded the country at the Bay of Pigs. The Bush administration strengthened a longstanding embargo by limiting Cuban Americans from visiting or sending money to relatives in the island nation. Travel and remittances annually infused up to $1.5 billion into Cuba, according to the U.S. State Department.
Some Cubans in Miami saw Castro’s move in October to ban the use of U.S. dollars and charge a government commission for exchanging currency as a sign tightened restrictions were working.
In Florida’s hotly contested Senate race, Democrat Betty Castor campaigned on increasing exchanges between the two countries, while her Republican opponent, Cuban American Mel Martinez, supported the hard-line approach. Martinez won by about 83,000 votes.
Castro’s regime is in its final days, and the Bush administration’s policy is to keep the pressure on by economically isolating the country, said Ana Carbonell, a Bush-Cheney spokeswoman.
“There’s no doubt that the President’s policy on Cuba is behind this community’s support,” she said.
The evening after the election, things were back to normal on Calle Ocho. Older Cubans gathered holding candles while listening to a man play a violin outside Cafe Versailles. But it had nothing to do with the election, it was the candle-light vigil for Cuba’s political prisoners held there every Wednesday.
Across the street, not much was left inside the former Kerry-Edwards office except a defrosting mini-fridge leaving a pool of water on the blue-and-white-checkerboard floor. Now-useless signs, fliers and door-hangers spilled out of the Dumpster in an empty parking lot outside.
On their way to a nearby restaurant, Jorge and Lourdes Iglesias walked hand in hand down Calle Ocho. Jorge Lourdes, a registered Democrat, unclasped his wife’s hand twice: once to list all the reasons why he didn’t vote for Kerry, then to count the people in his home that voted for Bush.
“Hopefully my party will find someone from the center next time,” he said.