The importance of the Cuban-American vote

News from Cuba | Thursday, 6 December 2012

by Jesus Arboleya Cervera for Progreso Weekly

Because they’re considered to be the most conservative voters in the U.S. political spectrum, the fact that at least 45 percent of Cuban-Americans voted for President Barack Obama’s reelection caused a big stir.

Actually, it shouldn’t be so surprising. As Alvaro Fernandez wrote in one of his commentaries, those results only confirm a trend that has been developing for years, related to the impact of the new immigrants and the emergence within the body of voters of young people born or raised in the United States.

Although some opine that these changes inevitably will lead to a loss of interest in the Cuban issue, this doesn’t seem to be the case here. If Cuban-Americans had voted for exclusively economic reasons, fewer of them would have voted for Obama.

Nor were they mobilized by an immigration reform that they don’t need or the problem of the undocumented migrants. Lastly, although a population with a high aging rate should worry about the Republican Party’s campaign against social benefits, they were not the segment that voted for President Obama or other Democratic candidates.

Two facts, somewhat related, emerge as the causes for the outcome at the polls: the fear of many that U.S. policy toward Cuba might return to its most hostile bases, and the ideological rejection of the new generations to the Republicans’ extreme conservatism.

Once again, this establishes the difference between the so-called “historic exile” and the majority of the rest of Cuban-American society, with the consequent debilitation of the far right, which also was affected by the retrogression of the ultraconservative sectors in the U.S. to which they are linked.

It is evident that the topic of U.S.-Cuba relations is an existential necessity for the new immigrants, pitting them against the Republican proposals to limit those contacts. But this contradiction is not so clear in the case of young people, whose ties to the motherland are more diffuse and often don’t materialize in practice.

Maybe the basic reason is a phenomenon that, for political reasons, has remained concealed in the historic analysis of the Cuban-American community: affiliation with conservatism has little to do with Cuban culture, where the religious fundamentalism and social intolerance that characterize that group are almost aberrations. Therefore, their preeminence in this context can only be explained by their identification with the counter-revolutiona ry project.

To the degree that this ultraconservative philosophy is rejected by the new generations for other reasons (including a process that involves a large part of U.S. society), there is an inevitable questioning of the premises that have fed the philosophy within the Cuban-American community (i.e., U.S. policy toward Cuba), even though this factor is not the voters’ main priority.

The other much-debated aspect has been the significance of the changes and their real impact on various aspects of U.S. political life. In reality, the importance of the Cuban-American vote has been overly exaggerated, because it barely has relevance beyond the Miami enclave, which on many occasions has been unable to determine the triumph of the Republican presidential candidate.

This does not mean that we may discard its relative value, since the participation and cohesion shown by Cuban-American voters has enabled a high level of control over local government and administrative structures, carrying its influence to other levels, as usually happens in the United States, especially when that process is functional to the interests of the system.

The Cuban-American far right has been a “product” of U.S. policy, not of the importance of the Cuban-American vote, but it couldn’t have solidified its influence without the existence of an electorate that gave it credibility and access to positions of power.

Because the cohesive factor par excellence has been belligerence against Cuba, the magnitude of the drop in votes lies not only in the fact that the “Cuban-American lobby” lost ascendance in U.S. policy toward the island but also in the fact that the balance of forces on a local scale was affected, to the detriment of the traditional political machine.

This does not mean that Cuban-Americans are condemned to lose their influence in South Florida, but that it will not be mandatory to vow fidelity to “the counter-revolutiona ry cause” to gain the support of these voters, which opens space to other competitors with other agendas.

That’s the implication of the loss of Republican Congressman David Rivera to Democratic challenger Joe García, not so much for each candidates’ party affiliation but because the central topic of debate between the two was U.S. policy toward Cuba. Rivera’s loss of prestige didn’t help, either.

We are facing, therefore, a new situation that forces both parties to review their political projections toward this community. For Republicans, the discourse of the far right could become a deadweight that will sink their aspirations on a local scale and hinder consensus with other conservative sectors that are interested in doing business with Cuba.

Democrats now have a chance to expand their social bases in an environment heretofore hostile, but that will depend on satisfying the aspirations of the new voters, which necessarily includes a more flexible and up-to-date policy toward Cuba.

That policy will also be new as regards Cuban politics, because it will have to focus not only on the new émigrés, big beneficiaries of Havana’s recent immigration reform, but also on the young Cuban-Americans. At the same time that they reject what they consider an irrational obsession among their parents and grandparents, young Cuban-Americans perceive Cuba as a distant and problem-riddled reality, forcing them to think about actions that encourage rapprochement, if Cuba wants to cast a positive influence on its relationship with them.

Looking toward the past, some in Cuba might think that rapprochement is worthless and best forgotten, but that would be an untenable position. Cuba cannot ignore a reality that has strategic importance for the nation, just as the émigrés and their descendants cannot ignore the impact of their contact with their country of origin on their own identity as persons.

The moral of the story is that the issue of U.S. relations with Cuba is closer to the daily life of Cuban-Americans than many people believe. And that’s what the recent elections reflected.

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