It’s presidential election season in the United States. So in Florida, or among Florida watchers, that means a new round of predictions about the performance of “the Cuban vote”. To be clear, said vote has never been monolithic. And given the growth of the non-Cuban Latino population in the state, Cubans are not as decisive a constituency as they used to be, even for winning Miami-Dade County. Still, in an election that will be decided by margins, every ballot counts. So there is reason to speculate.
The 2020 contest also takes place against the backdrop of a dramatic shift in U.S.-Cuban relations, an issue that could, hypothetically, sway some Cuban-American voters.
Despite sending his own staff in 1998 and 2015 to investigate business opportunities on the island, Donald Trump campaigned in 2016 on undoing Obama’s “bad Cuba deal”. After some initial half-measures, he has fulfilled his word. Today, the relationship between Washington and Havana is at its worst point in recent memory, exceeding the days when the Batalla de Ideas and “El Cabo” James Cason were fixtures on Cuban TV. Among other things, the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on the island has led to the closure of the U.S. consulate in Havana, the suspension of most commercial and charter flights, as well as shortages in the supply of oil. And with signals that Cuba may soon return to the State Department’s infamous list of “state sponsors of terrorism,” there is no end in sight.
For years, we have been told that the Cuban-American community was moving away from its encouragement of such tactics. Poll after poll showed increasing support for opening up diplomatic, travel, and commercial relations, especially among younger Cuban-Americans and Cuban migrants since the 1990s. Those shifts, in fact, helped create the political environment that made possible the diplomatic breakthrough between Cuba and the United States on December 17, 2014. It stands to reason, therefore, that some would argue President Trump’s Cuba policies make little political, let alone foreign policy sense. If 63 % of Cubans in Miami-Dade agreed in a 2016 poll that the embargo should be lifted, might the President be shooting himself in the foot?
Among those reaching this conclusion is Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla. In a February 13 tweet, he advised his American counterparts to reconsider their course: “In 2016, President Trump obtained the second worst result for the Cuban vote in Florida among Republican candidates. Hostility and measures of economic asphyxiation against Cuba do not favor his electoral interests…The President of the United States continues to be poorly advised.” Other Cuban officials have echoed this line of thinking in more recent weeks.
Not so fast
It is true that the slightly over 50 % of the Cuban vote that Donald Trump received in 2016 was not a particularly strong performance compared to historical precedent. (Donald Trump has repeatedly stated that he won over 80 % of the Cuban vote. Nothing could be further from the truth.) Nor did the Cuban vote decide the Florida race. Still, 2016 is not 2020. And the explanatory variables of the Cuban vote have never been so simple. Lately, various signs suggest that Cuban-American support for the President —and for his Cuba policy— has increased.
Digging into the data, let’s consider the following:
- Poll after poll show that for Cuban-American voters, including those who oppose the embargo, U.S.-Cuba policy is not high on their list of priority issues that determine their vote. This means that opposition to Trump Cuba’s policy (in whole or in part) does not necessarily translate to support for his opponent.
- Poll after poll have also shown that there is a significant difference between the opinion of Cuban-American voters on matters of U.S.-Cuba policy and that of the community as a whole, which includes many permanent residents who have not naturalized. The latter is particularly the case among Cuban immigrants from the last twenty/twenty-five years, which is important because it is this group (coupled with second-generation and younger Cuban-Americans) that has been most supportive of changing traditional Cuba policy in recent years. Thus, though more than half of foreign-born Cubans currently in the United States immigrated after 1990, and though the number of foreign-born Cubans in the United States has grown more than 50% just since the year 2000 (from 853,000 to 1.3 million), the opinions of these “recent” Cuban migrants do not carry comparable political weight due to lower citizenship rates.
- To date, there has been no significant organized opposition in the Cuban community to the Trump administration’s Cuba policy. Ever since he first announced a “cancellation of the Obama deal” in April 2017, voices denouncing the move in public have been few and far between. Exceptions include families with relatives in immigration limbo since the closing of the U.S. consulate in Havana, who have lobbied for special legislation to address their needs. That doesn’t mean there is no opposition. But the constituency that supports normalization has been quiet. For defenders of normalization locally, that should be worrying.
- In Miami of late, the Republican Party has shown renewed strength among the Cuban-American electorate. The Democratic Party has not. If we look at the 2018 midterm elections, yes, the Democrats flipped two congressional seats in the Miami area traditionally held by Republicans, in part due to the support of some younger Cuban-Americans and especially non-Cubans in those districts. But in the Florida gubernatorial race, twice as many Cuban-Americans voted for the Republican candidate as for his Democratic opponent.
- Since 2018, surveys of Cuban-American political attitudes and opinions show troubling trends for those who favor rapprochement. The 2018 FIU Cuba Poll—focused on Cubans in Miami-Dade County— revealed that on individual issues like freedom to travel and send remittances to the island, strong majorities still favor policies of so-called “engagement.” A strong majority also continues to agree that the embargo “hasn’t worked.” Still, paradoxically, that poll also registered a slight uptick in support for the embargo (51 % in favor vs. 49 % opposed) compared to 2016, when opposition to the policy reached a peak (37 % in favor vs. 63 % opposed). Changing views among pre-1980 Cuban immigrants account for the bulk of this shift. However, the poll also showed increases in the percentage of Cubans in South Florida identifying with the Republican Party, not only among pre-1980 immigrants (traditionally the base of Republican support), but also among those Cubans who have arrived in the United States since 1993.
- Finally, a November 2019 Equis Research survey of political attitudes among Cuban-American registered voters across the state of Florida (but predominantly in Miami-Dade County) shows a sharp intensification, not moderation, of the above trends. In that poll, 63 % of Cuban-American registered voters favored re-electing Donald Trump. Interestingly, the number of post-1993 immigrant voters who favored reelection was even higher: 72 %. That means that among more recent Cuban immigrants who are citizens and registered to vote, support for Trump was greater than within the Cuban-American electorate as a whole. 75 % of this post-1993 group also reported supporting President Trump’s Cuba policy.
No Reason for Confidence
Considering these data points, there is little reason to believe that opposition to the Trump administration’s Cuba measures—or to any of his many atrocious policies, to be frank—will drive strong anti-Trump Cuban-American turnout at the polls. If anything the opposite appears true. All things being equal, the President could be on his way to receiving a higher percentage of the Cuban vote than he did in 2016.
“Judge me by what I do, and not what I say,” some will argue. And it is true: until the Trump administration decided to curtail commercial and charter flights to the island —and, of course, until Covid-19 further interrupted travel of all kinds— the number of Cubans in the United States visiting home reached record highs even as the administration put other pieces of its “maximum pressure” campaign in place.
But visiting family does not equal acquiescence to island’s status quo. And given the statistics above, it seems probable those Cubans in the diaspora who will continue traveling to the island most regularly —when epidemiological conditions permit— share one of two characteristics: either they are less likely to be registered voters, or they do not see their opposition to new restrictions on travel, remittances, and visas for their family members as disqualifying for their support of the President. It is also likely that some of those willing to give normalization a chance previously have since changed their minds.
There are a number of paradoxes in all of this that need to be explained. If Cuba policy is not the only or even most important issue that drives Cuban-American votes, why is it still a political force in Miami? Why would the Republican Party dedicate so much effort to rolling back the Obama Cuba legacy? It may be that political operatives have concluded that, to win the state, they actually don’t need too many votes from the second-generation and recent Cuban immigrant cohorts. Concentrating on turning out the older, hardline Republican base in Miami, for whom Cuba policy does constitute a greater driver of voting behavior, may be enough. And anything after that is icing on the cake.
Regardless, strong support for President Trump and his Cuba policies among post-1994 Cuban immigrant voters should be particularly worrisome to proponents of normalization in the United States and Cuba. After all, it is this group of Cuban-Americans, given their more enduring connections to family and friends on the island, that theoretically has the most to lose from the continued bilateral tension that a second Trump administration would likely bring. And even if Cuba isn’t the only or even the most prominent issue that drives them to the polls, it certainly forms part of a potent mix that shapes more recent immigrants’ political identities.
It has been presumed that post-1994 migrants were more open-minded politically and were helping to push a slow political realignment in the community favoring the Democratic Party. That still may be the case eventually, if more of this cohort becomes citizens and begins to vote, particularly those who immigrated most recently (say, since 2010) or witnessed the positive effects of the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement between 2014 and 2017 personally. But so, too, can abiding frustrations with the political and economic situation in Cuba drive a desire to reject all that “socialism” represents, even superficially—not only by embracing arguments in favor of punishing sanctions, but also by gravitating toward the jingoistic, pro-capitalist individualism that is the hallmark of the Republican Party. Just look at the rising popularity of influencer Alexander Otaola among Cuban immigrants like him who arrived in the United States in the 1990s and 2000s. Not only has he mobilized support for Trump and his “maximum pressure campaign” among thousands of followers, but he also appeared in an Instagram video showing off at a gun range.
Barack Obama during his speech to Cuban entrepreneurs during his visit to Havana in 2016. Photo: Alain L. Gutiérrez Almeida
Is There a Road Back to Sanity?
None of the above is eternal, of course. Political opinions are notoriously fickle. Just as the implementation of the Obama normalization policy starting in 2014 saw a boost in support for engagement by 2016, support for Trump and Trump’s Cuba measures could be coyuntural (or fleeting), the product of a bandwagon effect. Various of the polls cited above need to be updated. And it is still to be seen whether the White House’s disastrous handling of the pandemic in 2020 —with 100,000 lives lost to date— has affected political dynamics locally in Florida in any significant way.
But neither should those who favor policies of normalization assume that the current moment of renewed support for a hardline Cuba policy will simply pass. And in Cuba, it would not be wise for those who prefer returning to more constructive bilateral relationship to simply sit with their arms crossed. Looking to the future, it is vital that officials in Havana realize that they have the power to change political dynamics in the Cuban émigré community to a considerable degree. Cuban-Americans’ opinions on questions of U.S.-Cuba policy, and their emerging political preferences in the United States generally, are not formed in a vacuum. They are intimately related to perceptions of events on the island and the way Cuban authorities have treated the diaspora to date.
To conclude, then, I offer the following observations for Cuban authorities to consider, not only as they prepare for the now postponed 4th “Nation and Emigration” conference, but also as they contemplate a legislative and political agenda beyond 2020.
First, and to restate a point made above, connectivity between Cuban émigrés and their home country does not equal support for the status quo on the island. Cuban authorities often point to the rising number of Cuban-American visitors in recent years as a de facto vote against isolation. In part, that is true. But just because many more Cubans in the diaspora visit home than ever before, that does not mean they are content with the state of affairs in Cuban society. Left unaddressed, their objections can fester, and push some migrants to embrace the opposite political extreme. They can even lead migrants who have felt sanctions’ effects to gradually become open to the arguments of those arguing for their intensification.
Second, Cubans who are most connected to the island feel that their support for their country and families is unrecognized. Remittances have become one of the most important sources of foreign currency for the Cuban economy, and of start-up funds for the self-employment (that is, private) sector. Cuban diaspora visitors poke some of the biggest holes in the embargo that exist every time they visit and bring suitcases loaded with gifts. Yet the Cuban government has never openly recognized these contributions, even as it courts them.
While there has been progress (such as the reform to Cuba’s Migration Law in 2012), existing rules still make maintaining a relationship with the island financially burdensome. The imposition of steep consular fees and import duties are clear examples.
And while many Cuban émigrés send remittances, some resent having to, wondering why it is that their parents or loved ones can’t survive on the income they do earn. Again, these frustrations can rankle, whittling away support for the normalization of U.S.-Cuban and Cuba-diaspora ties.
Third, most Cuban immigrants to the United States are frustrated with the pace of change at home. There is a deep strain of pessimism concerning events on the island in the Cuban émigré community in the United States. Some of that is rooted in historic, unwavering ideological opposition, but among more recent migrants, it is also draws upon the frustration of having lived through or witnessed a period of rising expectations followed by disappointment.
Starting in 2010, many Cubans looked hopefully on the prospects of the proposed “update” to Cuba’s social and economic model, which soon overlapped with the process of normalization with the Untied States. But eventually many became discouraged by the internal limits placed on change, which was followed by the Trump rollback. As a result, lately it is common to hear among some that the Obama policy “had its chance” or that it’s time to “turn the screws,” without articulating any reasoning as to what such measures will achieve today that they did not over the past six decades.
Finally, absent greater evidence of internal reform on the island, public support for normalization among Cuban-Americans and Cuban immigrants will likely remain muted, regardless of poll results.
Among many Cuban-Americans and recent Cuban immigrants, there still is significant recognition that hardline U.S. policies achieve no positive good. When probed, most will recognize that the Cuban people, not Cuba’s political system, feel the biggest effects of travel restrictions and other punitive measures. However, because of the negative memories some have of their experiences in Cuba, coupled with their perception of a lack of willingness to reform in Cuba itself, many Cubans in the United States are less likely to actively defend normalization policies (or vote to do so) when they are under attack, even if they consider them a better alternative than the opposite.
Some of my friends in Cuba will insist that, regardless of the above, there can be no moral justification for blanket sanctions that by their very nature target and impact innocent Cuban civilians —and even less so in the midst of a global pandemic. I completely agree. But whether we like it or not, events on the island have a bearing on Cuban diaspora political attitudes and behaviors.
Let’s also be clear about who the relevant actors are here. Many Cubans in the diaspora who today express support for the policies of the Trump administration are products not of the Cuban upper class of the 1950s, but of contemporary Cuban society. These realities call for more humility and proactive thinking. It is time to recognize that part of the solution for decreasing support for sanctions policies in Miami lies in Cuba itself, regardless of who wins the U.S. presidency.