Kerry’s Cuban Problem

How the Democratic nominee is blowing Florida.

John Kerry looks terrified when he talks about Florida—and not without cause. The state remains firmly in the hands of a Republican governor who happens to be the president’s brother, an autocratic Republican legislature, and a new secretary of state who may prove more partisan than Katherine Harris.

But what Kerry should be most worried about is the Cuban vote. If he handles his Florida campaign right, Kerry could win a much larger share of this exile constituency than the paltry 18 percent Gore won in 2000 and do as well as Clinton’s 39 percent, which would make victory in the state likely. But if he keeps going the way he has been, Kerry will get fewer Cuban votes even than Gore did and in all likelihood lose the state.

Kerry’s approach so far has been pandering to hard-line Cuban exiles—ineptly. In March, Kerry told a Miami TV reporter that he had voted for Helms-Burton, the 1996 legislation that further tightened the U.S. embargo on Cuba. In fact, he had voted against it. True, as he would later point out, he voted for its conference version, but that’s not the same thing. In fact, Kerry had excellent reasons for not voting for the final version—it slapped on the controversial provision allowing for lawsuits against Cuba to proceed in U.S. courts, which puts the United States at odds with the world and, in fact, has never been enforced by George Bush. But instead of arguing his position, Kerry dissembled and created a video loop that has run continuously on Miami television.

Last Sunday, on his third trip to the state, Kerry used Miami as the backdrop for his appearance on Meet the Press. Tim Russert lost no time reminding him that in 2000 he had said that the United States’ Cuba policy was the woeful result “of the power of the Cuban-American lobby.” Quoting Kerry, Russert said, “We have a frozen, stalemated counterproductive policy. … There’s just a complete and total contradiction between the way we deal with China, the way we deal with Russia, the way we have been dealing with Cuba. … The only reason we don’t re-evaluate the policy is the politics of Florida.”

In his fevered pursuit of Cuban-American votes, Kerry again sought to disavow his record. “All through the years I’ve been in the Senate, for 20 years, Tim, I have never suggested lifting the embargo,” he told Russert. “I don’t suggest you just lift the embargo. That’s not what I’m talking about.” God forbid!

Relying on the assumption that Cuban-Americans in Miami are monolithically conservative was part of Gore’s mistake. In fact, the Cuban exiles are not, as a rule, conservatives. More often than not, they champion social issues linked to Democrats: support for Social Security, Medicare, prescription drug benefits, and bilingual education. They tend to be pro-choice and concerned about environmental issues. The Cuban connection to the Republican Party has hung mainly on one issue: support for a non-engagement policy with Cuba going back to Eisenhower. But there is also a lingering bitterness at Democrats over President Kennedy’s refusal to provide air cover during the Bay of Pigs invasion.

But this passion is not shared by younger and newer arrivals from Cuba—who now form a majority. About 60 percent of Cuban-Americans in the United States arrived after the 1980 Mariel Boat exodus. According to two recent polls, one conducted by Florida International University and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the other by Bendixen & Associates, this group tends to view themselves primarily as economic, not political refugees. For them, family comes first, then issues of freedom in Cuba. Unlike the first wave of exiles, these more recent immigrants reject any policy of confrontation with the island that could bring harm or added hardship to their families still in Cuba. High on their agenda is unfettered travel to Cuba, along with the ability to send unlimited cash to their families. (Some estimate that $1 billion annually is sent to Cuba.) True, they do not turn out to vote as strongly as first-wave exiles, but they make up one-third of the Cuban-American vote.

But if Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the two congressmen from Miami, who have the ear of Karl Rove and Jeb Bush, had their way, both remittances and unrestricted travel would be eliminated, and Fidel Castro would be the next target for regime change. In fact, Lincoln suggested on Miami television a few weeks ago that Castro (who happens to be his former uncle by marriage) be assassinated. And he has made no secret of the fact that he hopes to replace him.

The unvarnished truth is that there’s no space on the right for John Kerry. Hard-line exiles—for whom Cuba is the only issue—are dedicated Republicans. However, there is an opening on the left. A viable position for Kerry would be to declare himself fiercely anti-Castro and then point out that Bush has no Cuba policy other than the embargo—a 45-year failure that has yet to make any progress toward its stated goals: free elections in Cuba and an end to Castro’s reign. Kerry should then champion what the majority of exiles want—unlimited remittances and unrestricted travel—and argue that increased contact with Cuba will lay the groundwork for civil society in the post-Castro years.

On Friday, the administration floated a proposal in the Sun-Sentinel that would freeze remittances for six months, despite the fact that 75 percent of post-Mariel exiles send money to the island. Republican Mel Martínez, who co-chaired the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which will make its recommendations to Bush by May 1, told the Sun-Sentinel that the administration “is currently engaged in discussions about ending them [the remittances] because they are not helpful.” Martínez, who is running for the Florida’s U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Bob Graham, takes the view that remittances feed Fidel Castro. Most exiles, however, believe they feed their families. It appears that the Diaz-Balarts have finally convinced Rove that, without a red-hot Élián issue, this is the way to galvanize their base. They couldn’t be more wrong. “If this Administration cuts travel or remittances to Cuba,” says Sergio Bendixen, whose company conducted one of the polls, “they lose the Cuban vote—and the election.”

On May 20, the 102nd anniversary of Cuba’s independence from Spain, Bush will give a much ballyhooed get-tough-on-Castro speech in Miami (his 22nd visit to Florida since he became president). He may very well announce that they are suspending remittances and further restrict travel to Cuba.

This would be a boon for John Kerry, who could rebuke Bush for starving and dividing Cuban families. That is, if Kerry can finally offer a coherent, consistent—and ultimately more popular—policy on Cuba than Bush.