Cuban-Americans and the presidential election: The 2020 Cuba Poll

Every four years Cuban-Americans in Miami become “los bravos de la película” — heroes of a movie running since the Cold War years with little updating. Politicians and their posses descend on South Florida and make promises about what they will do about the deviant Cuban government. It is as if Cubans care about nothing else other than US/Cuba policy and they only care about this every four years. Cuban-Americans play their role well and predictably. After some tension about whether generational shifts or the rising new waves of immigrants will change the political calculus, the hardliners reassert their dominance. The cries for a “Cuba Libre” echo off the glass walls of the Versailles restaurant. The Republican Party triumphs. The Democrats say ‘It is what it is.’ The end. To be continued.

For close to 30 of those long years I have conducted the FIU Cuba Poll. The Poll is usually scheduled during periods when everyone wants to know how Cubans are going to vote. The Cuba Poll tries to understand the attitudes of Cuban-Americans about U.S./Cuba relations and other ancillary policies linking the South Florida diaspora to the motherland. The tension between supporting policies of engagement or policies of isolation is always present. The desire to see change on the island, and to be players in that change, is palpable. Some want help from the U.S. government to promote political changes. Others want to be catalysts for micro economic changes on the island, starting with their families. Some want both. 

Certain long-established patterns survived in the latest poll, released on October 2. The desire for engagement is alive in the community but is frustrated by a lack of clear policies allowing for its expression. A majority of Cuban-Americans support policies that facilitate the selling of food and medicine to the Cuban people (69% and 74% respectively), maintaining diplomatic relations with the Cuban government (58%), and promoting strategies designed to improve the economic well-being of the Cuban people (78%). Over 70% of Cuban-Americans in South Florida left family on the island, so the interest in maintaining ties is hardwired, particularly among the most recent arrivals. Over 50% travel to the island and 48% send remittances to keep these ties alive. A large majority (65%) would like the airline industry to open routes to all parts of the island, not just Havana. Perhaps the question which most reveals the sensitivities of the community deals with the humanitarian crisis thrust upon us all by the Covid-19 pandemic. The community overwhelmingly supported, by 60%, a temporary suspension of the sanctions imposed by the nearly 66-year-old embargo to help Cubans face the humanitarian crisis. 

The opinions expressed in the Cuba Poll suggest the desire to keep bridges open between the South Florida diaspora and the island. Yet, the community has become more intransigent and more Republican since the election of Donald Trump. In spite of the desire to suspend sanctions during the pandemic, support for the embargo, after plummeting to 34% during Obama’s second term, is at 60% today. This is the highest percentage Cuban American support for the embargo since the Bush administration years. Likewise, since the Bush years, support for allowing regular travel for all Americans to Cuba declined below 50%. Isolationism is trending in the community.

Similarly, support for the Republican Party, a party that holds steady in its isolationist approach towards Cuba policy, has been on an upswing since the election of Trump. In a survey of Cuban-Americans released two days after the 2020 FIU Cuba Poll, the PEW Research Center reported that 58% of Cuban Americans nationwide are registered or lean Republican. Our poll reported a resurgence of the Party among Cuban-Americans, now representing 53% of registered voters after years of weakening during the Obama administration.

Can we reconcile the isolationist political profile of Cuban-Americans with a seemingly profound desire to stay connected to friends and relatives? At least two dynamics are at work in creating this apparent contradiction. First, the importance of the rules of engagement established by the leadership in Washington. Second, the pervasive presence of the Republican Party in the Cuban-American community.

The Trump Factor

The patterns established over the years by responses favoring either engagement or isolation with the island tell us that leadership matters. Policies established in Washington are followed by a majority of Cuban-Americans in South Florida. The pattern of increase support for engagement during Democratic leadership and an increase in isolationism during Republican administrations go back to the George H. Bush era. The profound changes initiated during the Obama administration provide the most compelling evidence of the importance of leadership on shaping the attitudes of Cuban-Americans towards US/Cuba policy. 

When Obama opened diplomatic relations with Cuba some protest was heard in South Florida, but the Cuban American community adjusted to the new normal. Over 64% of Cuban-Americans supported the engagement initiatives, according to our 2016 poll. The opening of travel to all Americans as well as support for increasing American investment on the island received 60% support across the board, except for the oldest exiles. Support for the embargo plummeted to the record low of 34% during the Obama administration.  

The Obama years also restricted the oxygen available for the hardliners within the Cuban community in South Florida. They didn’t disappear, but the Obama policies muted their ability to define the parameters of what it means to be a Cuban American in Miami. Large sectors of the community, particularly the young and the newest arrivals, now had “permission” to re-engage with their homeland. Many took advantage of the rapprochement and visited the island, some for the first time. Many came back lauding the dramatic economic changes unfolding as a result of the now permissible interactions. At long last Cuban Americans were having an impact on Cuban society. Improving the economic well-being of the Cuban people was viewed, even by some hardliners, as a catalyst for change; the grafting of middle-class aspirations on a stagnating economic system that might give rise to a deep restructuring of the Cuban state. The Obama engagement policies became a political Rorschach test flexible enough to be useful to those desiring regime change as well as those who just wanted to spend holidays with family and send diapers to their nephews. 

The policy rollback imposed by Trump gave old isolationist policies new wings and isolationist ideas new oxygen. Trump’s assault on engagement started immediately after his inauguration in 2017. The new policies changed the rules, once again, about what it means to be a Cuban-American in South Florida. Today, the voices of those who supported the channels opened by Obama are shaky, talking about “the good old days” of engagement as if they were an idyllic memory floating free of the current reality. While the post 1995 migrants cling to the remaining “salvavidas,” the lifelines linking the two sides of the Florida Straits (remittances, social media linkages), the network established by Obama is fraying and the fragile relationships, in this age of Covid, are difficult to maintain. There are no flights; there are no economic channels to promote change; and diplomacy is at a standstill. There is little to build on. The hardline is the only line as Trump works to erase the Obama footprints from the beaches of Cuba.

We also have to realize that Cuban-Americans do not base their political decisions only on a party’s view towards Cuba policy. When asked to rank importance on specific policy initiatives, Cuban-Americans consistently rank U.S./Cuba policy last. We saw this in the 2018 poll when we asked respondents to rank eight policies according to their importance in motivating them to vote for a specific candidate (the economy and jobs, health care, gun control, taxes and spending, immigration, foreign policy, Cuba policy and terrorism). A candidate’s view towards Cuba policy came in as the least important point motivating support. Similarly, in this year’s poll, we asked respondents to rank the importance of six policies independently, on a one to five scale, with 5 a measure identifying the issue as being extremely important to them. The economy and healthcare policies dominated (4.76 and 4.68) with race relations and immigration at distant third and fourth place (4.09 and 4.04). Cuba policy came in dead last, slightly behind China policy. 

It seems unlikely that any individual Cuban-American will vote for a candidate, or follow a party, purely because the views on U.S./Cuba policies coincide. Other policy concerns appear to be more significant motivators. Yet, Cubans still are consistently treated as one-issue voters. A misconstrued assumption that Cubans are clinging to an exile ideology obsessed with setting things right in the homeland to which they all desire to return. And some Cuban-Americans perform this role well. They cheer when candidates promise a Cuba Libre in Miami, as Vice President Pence did in a recent visit. They rave when Republicans associate policies promoted by Democratic candidates with “socialism” even though the most progressive Democrats fall far short of calling for the level of social protections incorporated into the famous 1940 Cuban Constitution held as sacred by many old timers.

The Cuba Poll shows that over 60 percent of arrivals since 1995 left Cuba to improve their economic well-being, not for political reasons, but once here, the script is one-size-fits-all. We play the part of a community obsessed with US/Cuba foreign policy because our history in this country has been shaped directly by the geopolitical twists and turns of this policy. We tease politicians who assume that to get our vote they must recognize the yearning need of displaced exiles, soldiers in a geopolitical struggle of enduring significance, rather than the quotidian preoccupations of American citizens. 

Cuba Libre is the “promise.” And the Republican Party is the king of “Cuba si, Castro (or Diaz Canel) no.” Cuban-Americans respond. We cheer and vote Republican. Analysts and observers are forced to craft an explanation about why social change does not occur, not in Cuba, but in Miami. Sadly, I think that part of the answer is that Cuban-Americans are easily manipulated. Being manipulated has become part of our political DNA. The manipulation is choreographed by the Republican Party but only because the Democrats long ago gave up trying to feel the rhythm of the conga. 

The Republican Party Factor

Trump’s success among Cuban Americans is surprising only if you believe that Cuban-American Republicans, because they are Hispanics, should behave differently than other Republicans. But why hold Cuban Americans to a different standard? 

Republicans all over the United States support Trump in a cult-like manner. The Gallup Poll measuring the approval rating of the president, released in August when we concluded our FIU Cuba Poll, reported that Republicans nationwide gave Donald Trump an outstanding 92% job approval rating. We didn’t ask the job approval question directly, but we did ask Cuban Americans how much they approved or disapproved of President Trump’s handling of specific national issues (immigration, healthcare, race relations, national protests, Covid-19 crisis, the economy, China policy and Cuba policy). Although Cuban-Americans are clearly “all in” as far as Trump’s handling of these national concerns, the support among Cuban-American Republicans ranged from 72% (national protests) to 92% (the economy). Even the support for the handling of the Corona crisis mirrored the national Republican support: 82% approval by Republicans nationwide vs 83% approval among Cuban-American Republicans. By Republican standards, Cuban-Americans are in the mainstream. In the midterm elections, Cuban-Americans with no party affiliation voted overwhelmingly for the Republican candidates. The Republican political narrative overwhelms; it is the North Star of the Cuban-American political compass. What is absent is an effective counterpoint to the Republican narrative.

The two parties are not created equal as far as Cuban-Americans go. Since the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan recruited the Cuban community in Miami to assist in his war against the Evil Empire and serve as surrogates in the suppression of the Nicaraguan Revolution and others that might follow, the Republican Party has known how to appeal to Cuban-Americans. How to make us feel special. The Republican Party has been building its Cuban base since those years when Jorge Mas Canosa worked hand in glove with the party in providing Cuban-Americans a network which allowed politicians to gain power and businesses to make money. But they didn’t build the base talking about Cuba policy. They built the base by turning exiles into citizens.  They built the base by responding to the needs of the elderly population by supporting  “comedores,” elderly dining halls, to deal with their nutritional and social needs, by providing career paths for young professionals, by assisting constituents in filling out immigration paperwork, insurance and social security claims, by offering internships to their kids and job referrals when necessary or small business loan recommendations. The Republican Party built its base assisting Cuban-Americans in resolving their daily problems; by dealing with the daily “achaques”; addressing the economic and health care concerns of their constituents and other preoccupations that arise from being an immigrant in the United States. The Republican base was built by putting boots on the ground to register voters who saw that belonging to the Republican Party benefited them. 

The question of “big government” vs “small government” has never been the question. The question is what party uses government to benefit the Cuban American base in its life as immigrant, not as exiles. In fact, Cubans have benefited greatly from U.S. federal government largess through the years, primarily, and ironically, during Democratic administrations. Most of the migration accords and their legal armature have been erected by Democratic presidents. The Cuban Refugee Program (1961), Cuban Adjustment Act (1966), Senator Lawton Chiles (D-FL) pushing through legislation ensuring that Cubans will be eligible for the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program (1975), the Helms-Burton Act (1996), which in all likelihood inhibited President Obama from lifting the embargo, the signing of the 1995 Immigration Agreement, which facilitated the migration to the United States of hundreds of thousands of Cubans. Even the implementation of the embargo, around which swirls such symbolism and passion, occurred during a Democratic administration (1962).  

Perhaps because of this consistent and expected support received from the U.S. government, Cuban-Americans do not see a contradiction with supporting Trump and his party while at the same time showing up with the highest per capita Obamacare enrollee numbers in the country. The Republican Party gets credit for not dismantling the program rather than the Democrats for establishing it. And if they dismantle it, no worries. The Republicans will always take care of Cuban-Americans, one way or another. Decades of developing and organizing the base has established a deep and solid foundation within the community. The Republican Party has become a source of Cuban-American identity. 

I witnessed the creation of the Republican Matrix firsthand when I was director of the Center for Labor Research and Studies at FIU in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. I worked closely with the Cuban-American labor leaders, all of them Democrats, and witnessed how the Cuban-American Republican representatives in Tallahassee worked with labor and its members on economic and social issues. At one point I analyzed the voting record of Cuban-American representatives on labor issues and was astounded to find their voting record to be almost as pro-labor as their Democratic counterparts statewide and much more than Republican colleagues. The topic of Cuba as a foreign policy concern was tangential to the party’s presence in the community as a problem solver.

More recently, new arrivals from the island, not having a historic view of political culture in the United States, or of the contradictions between the Republican “small government” rhetoric and “big government” benefits bestowed on Cuban-Americans, see in Trumplandia an in-your-face Republican Party that is empowering in its iconoclastic, patriotic arrogance. With Trump they are riding a history-be-damned wave sweeping the country and the world. Our poll shows, for the first time since we’ve been keeping records, that the new arrivals are registering Republican rather than Democrat or Independent (No Party Affiliation) to the tune of 76%. They see the Matrix created by the Republicans in Miami and it is good.

The Cuban American allegiance to the Republican Party does not hinge on its foreign policy stance towards Cuba. The sad fact is that Cuba simply has not been important enough to any Republican or Democratic president (before Obama) to risk upsetting the devil-you-know status quo of belligerent policies and hostile rhetoric. But the Democratic Party, which has been cast by the peculiarities of American capitalism as representatives of the “working class,” to which by all objective measures Cuban-Americans belong, has considered the Cubans a lost cause. Belonging to the Democratic Party, for your average Cuban American, has always been a conflictive situation. And the Democrats have never figured out how to penetrate the community.  Part of the reason has been that Democrats have bought the line that Cuban-Americans care about U.S./Cuba policy above all else. So candidates come to appeal to Cubans on their knees, assuring them that they are not socialist, that they will deal with the human rights abuses in Cuba, that they understand Cuban-Americans’ concerns. In other words, they come to talk to Cubans using Republican talking points. But only Republicans can get away with the duplicity of talking tough and doing nothing on Cuba because for decades they’ve dealt with the actual problem that Cuban-Americans face every day, not just once every four years. 

For Cuban-Americans, the Republican approach to U.S. policy towards Cuba is just icing on the cake. A very elaborate icing, with predictable flourishes and decorations but one that sweetens a cake that has been mixed and baked year-round, year after year, boots on the ground, servicing and developing a solid constituency which associates party allegiance with its identity and which results in the community gifting the Party with the kind of resounding support that reverberates throughout the entire Cuban-American culture in South Florida — from young to old, and from ancient exile to off-the-boat economic migrants.

Obama’s success in changing U.S./Cuba policy came with the assumption that he could ignore the Cuban vote and change history. That the political price to pay for establishing relations with Cuba was insignificant in the grand scheme of things. That he could ignore Cuban American opinions for the sake of national interests which extended not only to Cuba but to the Latin America as well. He led with his commitment to establish new ways of creating change on the island and, lo and behold, most of the Cuban American community followed. Some eagerly and some dragging their heels, but he built a new Cuba policy and they came. Whether you agree with his approach or not, whether you think that the changes brought about in Cuba and the diaspora in two short years were sufficient, you have to admit, he engaged with Cuba and Cubans directly and more effectively than any president in the last six decades, Democrat or Republican. Ordinary Cubans on the island and in Miami saw themselves, the United States and the Cuban government differently and the behaviors of individual and institutional actors were altered.  But what he lacked throughout was the concomitant commitment of the Democratic Party to establish a beachhead in the Cuban-American community. Since the new normal “proved” that the community could be ignored when it came to changing foreign policy, its presumed “core issue,” this was interpreted as a sign that the community could be ignored, period. This disregard made it easier for Trump to rollback most of Obama’s opening without incurring any political cost. Maybe I’m being too rough. Maybe there’s a plan. If there is, it’s not working.

Imagine if Hillary Clinton had won the election and had maintained the engagement policies towards Cuba. We would not be talking about the importance of the Cuban-American vote in the coming elections, at least not like this. Given the results of the 2020 poll, where Cuban Americans, even at the height of its Trumpism, still support policies designed to directly assist the economic empowerment of the Cuban people, I believe that the discussions surround U.S./Cuba policy in South Florida would be different than today’s discussion. Had the White House remained in Democratic hands, and with the resulting election of a couple of Democratic congressional representatives in South Florida, we might be talking about how well the Democrats have performed on the ground as representatives of Cuban-Americans. Or about how specific U.S. foreign policies towards Cuba have addressed national interests or even the narrower interests of Cuban-Americans. Or how the needs of Cuban-Americans are being met or neglected by the American two-party structure. A structure that has always approached the Cuban-American community with immeasurable cynicism and contempt. It is clear that we are not considered to be fully developed citizens of this country. And, sadly, that seems to be fine by us.

To many in the two-party structure, we are the eternal “exiles,” more interested in our country of origin than in this one. Predictably irrational in protecting the “patria chica,” the small homeland crafted from memories and resentment. We never forget and we never learn. We live in a fantasy land, a bubble called Miami. A liminal space existing in some Cold War time warp equidistant from contemporary Cuba and the United States where Cuban-Americans are taken for granted and manipulated; left to linger “in the gruesome quiet of an entirely imaginary world,” in the words of Hanna Arendt. Stranded on the eternal beachhead of a political Playa Giron where victory is simultaneously assured and impossible to achieve. A place where we long, with our parents and children, for a future that will help explain our past. Where we agree with Julio Antonio Mella, not knowing who he is or what he meant, when he said what we too know to be true, if only because we see the present as inadequate: “Todo tiempo futuro tiene que ser mejor.” The future is always better.

Guillermo J. Grenier, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of the Department of Global & Sociocultural Studies at Florida International University. Since 1991, he has served as a lead investigator of the FIU Cuba Poll, a project cosponsored by the Cuban Research Institute.