Cuban Americans’ shifting identity, and political views, divides key bloc
By Marc Fisher April 12 at 1:27 PM
MIAMI — When Sen. Marco Rubio stands before Miami’s historic Freedom
Tower on Monday and announces that he is the second Cuban American to
join the 2016 race for president of the United States, Gabriel Perez,
Emilio Izquierdo and Mike Valdes will share a powerful sense of pride.
This is the big sign that Cuban Americans have finally made it, they all
say — accepted not only as refugees from communism or as successful
businesspeople but as serious contenders for the most American job in
But let the wave of pride surrounding the candidacies of Florida’s Rubio
and fellow Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas subside, and Perez,
Izquierdo, Valdes and many of their fellow Cuban Americans find
themselves in surprising discord.
The idea of the Cuban American monolith, the notion that the estimated 2
million immigrants and their offspring constitute a single-issue ramrod
that for a half-century has forced Washington into a hard line against
the Castro brothers’ regime, is crumbling in the classic, perhaps
inevitable, way: Time is turning immigrants into Americans.
“Over the last 15 years, and especially the last five years, the Cuban
American community has undergone a major transformation,” said Fernando
Amandi, whose research firm, Bendixen & Amandi International, regularly
polls Cuban Americans. “In the most politicized Hispanic group in the
country, there is now a cleavage in which the second and third
generations, as well as more recent arrivals from Cuba, do not share the
hard-line views and staunchly Republican affinity of the historic exile
President Obama handily won the vote of Cuban Americans between ages 18
and 50 in both of his elections, according to Amandi’s surveys. His
recent research shows that Rubio and Cruz are not necessarily favorite
sons at the ballot box. Rubio, who opposes easing the U.S. embargo
against Cuba, “is literally advocating for policies that separate the
more recent arrivals from their families who are still on the island,”
On the streets of Miami, the palpable pride in Rubio, Cruz and the other
Cuban American senator, Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), even though he is
under indictment on federal corruption charges, does not automatically
translate into votes.
“Rubio, he’s not going anywhere,” said Perez, a retired mechanic at
Miami’s airport who fled Cuba in 1961 and long ago concluded that
stiff-arming the communist regime in Havana never had a prayer of
working. “This thing Obama’s doing now, doing business with Cuba again,
if America did it 40 years ago, Castro would have been gone.”
Perez points at the others at Domino Park in Miami’s Little Havana, many
of them Cuban octogenarians trading quips over the clatter of domino
tiles on a dozen outdoor tables. “Rubio is like the old guys here who
can’t stop fighting,” Perez said. “They try the same idea for 40 years,
and it never works and they just keep fighting.”
Twenty blocks down Little Havana’s main drag, Calle Ocho, Izquierdo, a
67-year-old limo driver who runs a Cuban patriots group on the side,
develops a catch in his throat as he talks about two sons of exiles like
himself now running for president.
“Two million Cubans and two possible presidents,” he said. “I’m very
emotional about it.” Rubio doesn’t have his vote wrapped up yet, but the
fact that he is Cuban weighs heavily in his favor. “This says we are a
powerful community. And yes, emotion plays a role: Spaniards go by
opinions and Anglos go by facts; we Cubans are a hybrid of the two.”
The defining moments in Izquierdo’s life came in Cuba, and his politics
in the United States consistently reflect that. “I was 11 when Castro
took the power,” he said. “I was 14 when Castro took my family’s
property.” He fled in the Mariel boatlift emigration in 1980 and became
a U.S. citizen six years later. What he wants from a presidential
candidate now is the right answer to one question: “Are you going to
represent the Cuban exiles? Because we don’t believe in relations with
Seventeen miles away, in the upper-middle-class suburb of Miami Lakes —
a generation ago an Anglo enclave and now a mostly Cuban community —
Mike Valdes, 38, owns Moda, a high-end boutique in which Spanish is
used as the main language. The Rubio and Cruz candidacies “put us on the
map, finally for something other than Castro, rum or Cohibas,” he said,
referring to the brand of cigars.
But relations with Cuba don’t make Valdes’s political top-10 list.
“There’s a lot of problems in this country,” he said. “We need to do for
us before we start doing for other places.” Valdes remains a Republican
because that’s how he was brought up, but he’s okay with Obama’s
outreach to Cuba and looks forward to normalized trade and travel.
“Our grandparents’ generation is passing on, and my generation doesn’t
really know their stories,” Valdes said. “Our Cuban part is there when
you need it, but we’re losing the accents and the language. Soon, the
Cubans will just be Miamians. Eventually, they’ll knock down the Freedom
Tower and nobody will remember what it meant.”
The Freedom Tower, gateway to the United States for the first generation
of Cuban refugees, stands at 17 stories, a rust-colored Spanish
Renaissance structure that for decades sat abandoned in a desert of
urban decay along Miami’s bayfront, surrounded by empty lots, a
notoriously dangerous park and the city’s skid row. Today, the building
is dwarfed by gleaming white 60-story condo towers, almost lost across
from a busy and festive waterfront and the snazzy home of the Miami
Heat. Downtown Miami’s boom is proud evidence of Cuban success, but the
symbolic importance of the Freedom Tower is lost on younger Cubans, many
The developing divide within the Cuban community is stark. Amandi’s
latest poll shows that 66 percent of Cuban Americans born in the United
States support Obama’s effort to normalize relations with the island
nation, while 60 percent of those who arrived in this country before
1980 oppose the initiative.
Saturday’s meeting between Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro, the
first such discussion in more than 50 years — as well as the State
Department’s recommendation last week that the United States remove Cuba
from its list of state sponsors of terrorism — would have been
unthinkable during the decades of Cuban American consensus on a hard
no-contact policy toward their former home.
But now, the move away from a single-issue focus on Cuba is evident in
Cuban Americans’ party affiliations. Twenty years ago, 70 percent of
Cuban Americans called themselves Republicans. In the latest Florida
International University Cuba Poll, that number was down to 53 percent.
Almost half of Cuban Americans are now U.S.-born, and they are reverting
to a full spectrum of political perspectives, said Guillermo Grenier, a
sociologist who has run FIU’s Cuba Poll for 24 years. “What it meant to
be Cuban got really narrowed in the United States in the ’60s and ’70s,
because the passion to overthrow Castro trumped everything else,” he
said. “Now we’re seeing the full diversity of political views.”
In South Florida, immigrants who arrived after 1995 now make up a third
of the Cuban community, and most are not Republicans, Grenier said.
generation Cubans no longer reflexively hew to the GOP, and especially
not to candidates who oppose opening up to the island.
“My students think of themselves as Republicans,” Grenier said, “but
they keep asking, ‘How can Rubio be against making Cubans’ lives easier
by being against investing in the island?’ Republicans can’t just play
the Cuba card like they did 20 years ago.”
The labels that Miami-Dade County’s nearly 900,000 Cuban Americans use
reveal their political journey.
Many in the first generation call themselves “Cuban exiles.” More recent
immigrants often just say “Cuban.” And many descendants of those
refugees call themselves “Cuban Americans” or just “Americans.”
“We are like any other immigrant group,” Perez said. “Our old identity
is dying. In a few years, Miami will be like Tampa, where they all have
Spanish names but almost nobody speaks Spanish.”
At Domino Park on Friday, only three of the 88 men and two women at the
game tables said they were fluent in English.
“They’re isolated, like any new immigrant group,” said Rey Valdes, 71, a
Cuban immigrant who is running for the Democratic nomination for a state
House seat representing a district that spreads from Little Havana to
Miami Beach. “That isolation allowed them to remain ideological. But
their children understand this isn’t an ideological society. It’s a
nation of pragmatists.”
Valdes said Cubans remain largely conservative and entrepreneurial but
no longer exist in a political bubble.
“Rubio and Cruz running — to us this is like when Argentina got their
pope,” he said, “but most Cubans under 40 or 50 see issues beyond the
tyranny of Castro. We like that Rubio is running, but his rhetoric is
from another era.”
Nancy Coto, 52, was 8 years old when her parents brought her to Miami.
On paper her politics don’t differ much from her father’s, but her heart
is sometimes in a different place.
“I share what he believes, but not that passion,” she said, and to
demonstrate the difference, she shook her entire body to represent her
father’s total devotion to any policy that could make the Castro
brothers miserable. Then she went slack to show her own priorities:
“Cuba’s just not on top of my list. If Obama wants to reach out to Cuba,
it doesn’t bother me. I’m more concerned about jobs.”
Leslye and Eduardo Martin were barely teenagers when they left Cuba in
the late 1990s. Living with their two small children in Miami Lakes,
their new world is a classic suburban blend of long hours at work, a
strong focus on the children and a long-term plan to live the American
Dream and step up the economic ladder.
Leslye, who is 30 and works in health-care administration, calls herself
a committed Republican and appreciates the help that her family got from
Rubio in navigating the immigration bureaucracy. But his positions on
Cuba don’t really factor into her vote for president. “I don’t even know
where he stands on Cuba,” she said. “Our life is here.”
“As time passes, we leave Cuba behind,” said Eduardo, 31, a network
engineer. “We never forget our roots, but we’re here and our job is to
make the country better.” This country.
Marc Fisher, a senior editor, writes about most anything. He’s been The
Post’s enterprise editor, local columnist and Berlin bureau chief, and
he’s covered politics, education, pop culture, and much else in three
decades on the Metro, Style, National and Foreign desks.
Source: Cuban Americans’ shifting identity, and political views, divides
key bloc – The Washington Post –