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Until Moderate Cuban-Americans Vote, No Poll Will Change U.S. Cuba Policy


The Cuba policy hardliners in this country look more panicked than Fidel Castro trying to find his dentures.

Each month seems to bring more evidence that Americans – and Cuban-Americans – reject Washington’s long and failed strategy of isolating the communist island. The latest is this week’s Florida International University poll: A majority of Miami Cubans favor dropping the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and engaging the country as a way of undermining the Castro dictatorship.

The hardline Cuban congressional caucus – aka the Capitol Hill Cubans – has shifted into its angry denial gear, calling the FIU survey “misguided” and accusing the pollsters of betraying “solidarity” with Cubans.

The hardliners are vilifying anyone who dares urge President Obama to relax the embargo in order to aid private Cuban entrepreneurs. The reformers believe more empowered Cuban capitalists could be as important as Cuban dissidents in challenging the Castro regime. But the hardliners call the reformers dangerous mercenaries who are indifferent to the Castros’ dismal human rights record.

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That's patently false, of course, but no matter. When folks like the Capitol Hill Cubans feel their intolerant dogma threatened, the response is more intolerance. It’s not enough to disagree; they have to demonize. The Castros, by the way, subscribe to the same M.O.

Just as Fidel always finds his false teeth, the Capitol Hill Cubans always retain their political teeth

And yet the hardliners really aren’t as panicked as the reformers think. Just as Fidel always finds his false teeth, the Capitol Hill Cubans always retain their political teeth. And the explanation resides precisely in the new FIU poll.

It can be found in the survey’s second question: Do you favor or oppose continuing the U.S. embargo of Cuba? Fifty-two percent of all Miami Cubans say they oppose the embargo. But among Miami Cubans registered to vote, 51 percent say they favor it. That’s why reformers have so far come up toothless in their efforts to sway the White House.

The hardliners may not acknowledge the inefficacy of their Cuba policy, but they’re astutely aware of this: Votes are a democracy’s currency. And they keep Miami Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, as well as fellow hardliners like New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, not just in power but powerful enough on Capitol Hill to intimidate Obama.

But, you’ll ask, doesn’t Obama winning Florida in 2008 and 2012 prove that the hardline Cuban exiles’ political muscle has gone flabby? Yes and no. And just enough no to make Obama take a pass on any further softening of the embargo.

Obama has indeed defied the hardliners by allowing Cuban-Americans unlimited travel to Cuba and remittances to relatives there. But he and his advisors deemed it safe: Even Miami Cuban voters overwhelmingly wanted that one.


But that’s as far as he’ll go. And that’s because he doesn’t care enough about Cuba, or Latin America, to risk a brawl with the likes of Ros-Lehtinen and Menendez. They wield just enough clout in their respective chambers to make the last two years of his presidency difficult on issues that do matter to him.

If Obama sees scant evidence that actual Cuban-American voters – the only Americans who care enough about Cuba to carry it into the ballot booth – have swung to the reformers, he’s not likely to budge.

Which means the reformers need to make fewer visits to the Beltway and more to Miami-Dade County – preferably with voter registration forms in hand. Too many of the moderates responding to polls like FIU’s are younger or recently arrived Cuban-Americans who simply don’t take voting or even U.S. citizenship seriously enough.

The reformers only need look at the example of Mexican-Americans. They account for two-thirds of the U.S. Latino population, yet for decades they failed to sign up and show up to vote. That made it safe for Washington to dismiss Latinos. That is, until 2012, when Mexican-Americans helped hand Obama an astonishing 71 percent of the Latino vote – and immigration reform suddenly moved to the front burner.

Until more moderate Cuban-Americans step up in similar fashion, expect more of the same – like what we saw this week in the case of Alan Gross, the U.S. aid contractor who is serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba on highly questionable spying charges.

The Capitol Hill Cubans vehemently oppose any attempt to negotiate Gross’ release, even though that’s exactly what we’d be doing behind the scenes with any other country. Gross’s family has repeatedly complained that the doctrine of absolute disengagement with Cuba matters more to the hardliners than finding a way to secure his release.

When Gross’ 92-year-old mother died yesterday, the Capitol Hill Cubans issued a self-serving condolence statement calling on Obama to make the Castro regime “face serious, tangible repercussions for its illegal hostage-taking.”

That won’t win Gross’ freedom any more than the embargo will topple the Castros. But for the hardliners, it’s nothing to panic about.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.