Cuban-American Voters– New vs. Tried ‘n True

  Some thoughts on the John McCain rally in west Miami-Dade.  It looked and sounded like many other Republican rallies aimed at the Cuban exile voter in the last several years.

  Olga Guillot– singer and heroine in the exile community– sang the Cuban national anthem.  The Congressional brothers Diaz-Balart were on stage behind McCain, who was introduced by Roberto Martin Perez, the exile community’s most-prominent ex-political prisoner, a man whose presence underscores McCain’s heroic resume as a POW.

  McCain’s speech contained a lot of sentiments we’ve heard before.  “The Cuban people have waited long enough!”  Hard to argue with, and sure to win applause from an audience jam-packed with exiles who certainly feel they’ve waited far too long for the end of dictatorial rule in their homeland.

  But McCain’s speech offered little beyond “stay the course” of Bush Administration policies– continuing the embargo, and curbs on remittances and travel back to the island.  Innovations were vague and modest– more support for dissidents on the island, more resources for Radio & TV Marti.   McCain made a pledge that his Justice Department “would vigorously prosecute Cuban officials implicated in the murder of Americans, drug trafficking, and other crimes”, though when asked about prosecutions stemming from the shootdown of “Brothers to the Rescue” pilots, McCain’s bold-sounding initial answer– “Yes”– back-pedaled into something more along the lines of “We’d investigate it thoroughly, and prosecute if it was warranted.”  

 Current US policies toward Cuba have won backing of healthy majorities of hispanic voters in south Florida, voters who’ve been an essential component of crucial Bush victories in Florida.

  However, we are told constantly this is a “change” election.  It’s not just pundits– voters I interview talk about “change” all the time.   Not surprisingly, Democratic critiques of the speech said McCain outlined a “status quo” position on Cuba. 

   My biggest shock of the day was a chat with a young Cuban-American who’s been a stalwart of George W. Bush fund-raising efforts in the past– a guy who’s raised six-figure sums for W.   I’d called him, trying to find out where McCain’s evening fund-raiser was to be held, figuring he might be headed there.

   But this guy surprised me, saying he was on the political sidelines this year, focussing on his business.  I got an even bigger shock when I asked if he might even be pondering a vote for Obama.  He said yes, adding that what he’d read of Mccain’s speech on-line sounded like too much business as usual.  

   I began to wonder how many folks there were like this young man (who didn’t want me to use his name, saying– “I don’t need the phone calls”), thinking a new approach might be in order, to bring change to Cuba. 

   McCain argues, we should be alarmed by Obama’s new approach.  “He would also sit down unconditionally for a presidential meeting with Raul Castro”.   The booing swelled as McCain repeated “sit down unconditionally for a presidential meeting with Raul Castro.”  He says the same thing about the possibility Obama might sit down with Ahmadinajad of Iran, a prospect that may well alarm another big Florida constituency, Jewish voters.

   South Florida Democrats argue, while older exiles who predominated at McCain’s event might still hew to the hard-line, younger Cuban-Americans (those who listen to Marc Antony, rather than Olga Guillot) are turned off by current policy, especially those limits on visits and remittances to relatives on the island.  That perceived generational split forms the basis of the Democrats’ challenges to Congressional incumbents like the Diaz-Balarts.

   Another younger Cuban-American I ran into after the rally– an elected official– admits that this year feels like an anti-Republican “perfect storm”.  But he argues, in the end, the spread of socialism in Latin America (in Venezuela and Bolivia) will drive potential defectors from the traditional hard-line back to the GOP in the fall.

   No predictions here– but this is a campaign story that will be fascinating to watch, as it unfolds.

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