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How Obama Lost the Cuban-American Vote

As Obama begins a new presidential campaign, many Cuban-Americans have denounced the way the president has handled America’s half-century-old feud with the Castro brothers. Earlier this year, Obama eased the embargo by allowing more Americans to travel to Cuba and spend money on the island. With these policies, the Cuban community in America is growing increasingly anxious that the U.S. is financially enabling our totalitarian neighbor to the south. 

Currently there are six Cuban-Americans in Congress, four of whom are Republican. Despite differences in political affiliation, all of the elected officials are pro-embargo and five have issued negative public responses to the Obama's Cuba policy. Representative and Chair of the House on Foreign Affairs Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) believes the changes “will not aid in ushering in respect for human rights.” Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) called it a "gift to the Castro brothers.” Another Cuban House Republican, Mario Lincoln Diaz-Balart, said "[For] people who go there 10 or 15 times a year, it's become a business, and a very lucrative business for the Castro regime." Two representatives have proposed bills in Congress to amend Obama’s policies.   

Even though a recent Gallup poll revealed that 51% of Americans favor ending the embargo, and the UN has been calling for an end to the embargo for years, this is not what the Cuban people in America want. 

A 2009 poll conducted by the University of Miami concluded that 57% of Cuban-American voters in Miami-Dade County support the embargo. Surely this is not because people want to see their friends and relatives suffer. It is because Cubans know that easing restrictions means more money to Cuba's government — a government that jails or executes people for dissenting. Cubans are living in poverty despite the country’s active trade with China, Canada, Venezuela, and Spain. Forbes estimated that Fidel Castro’s wealth was around $900 million in 2006, while an average Cuban citizen makes about $20 a month.

This feeling is captured by Rep. David Rivera (R-Fl.), who said in a 2009 interview, “We should be pushing the Cuban regime to change, not the United States government to change." Comparing the embargo to past economic sanctioning of other countries, such as South Africa, Rivera said, "What the embargo does is make sure that the world understands that the Castro regime is a dictatorship and that they deserve the penalty of economic sanctions."

My father emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba when he was 14 through the Peter Pan Operation in the 1960s. He has since fought communism in Vietnam, Angola, Nicaragua, and of course, Cuba. His work has nearly gotten him assassinated by Cuban spies in Miami. When I asked him what he thought about Obama’s policies toward Cuba he said, “Obama is dreaming; he doesn’t realize the reality of the situation. Cuba has always shown hostility towards the United States.” He said that tourism “won’t make a difference in the humanitarian aspect of their lives because people are scared of being thrown in jail or executed for speaking against the government." He pointed out that even Americans are at risk if they visit Cuba. Take the example of Alan Gross.

Some people say Cuba shows signs of moving forward. For example, last Saturday, on Fidel Castro’s 85th birthday, Cuba had its first ever wedding between a man and a transgender. In fact, the island now provides free sex change operations. Could this “progress” be related to Obama’s policies?

Absolutely not, Cuban-American scholar Andy Gomez told me. “If another revolution starts it would be because the people in Cuba had enough, not because of foreign policy.” But my feeling is Obama is going to push for even more reforms. In October, the Spanish company Respol YPF has plans to begin drilling for oil off the coast of Cuba. There are an estimated 4.6 billion barrels of oil, as well as a substantial amount of natural gas trapped just to the north of the island. When this happens, I am sure the U.S. will reconsider the embargo no matter what Cuban-Americans think.

Does this mean Obama will lose the Cuban vote? It is hard to say with certainty. Younger Cuban generations are increasingly voting for Democrats, and since they are raised here they tend to be more concerned with domestic issues rather than foreign relations. But, unless Obama can spark interest in the younger generation to get to the polls like they did in 2008, he has already lost much Cuban support.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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