Cuba in the Eyes of a South Floridian Democrat

Dems’ Executive Director Mikala Cohen on the IOP’s trip recent trip to Cuba and changing Cuban politics

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I grew up surrounded by Hispanic-American culture in Weston, a South Florida city that has affectionately been deemed “Westonzeula,” a nod to the large Venezuelan, Colombian, and Cuban populations.

As a result, I was raised to have a decent understanding of Cuban-American relations and the history between our two countries. Then, in the summer of my senior year of high school and fall of my first year at the University of Chicago, I started working on Florida’s gubernatorial campaign and got more intimately involved with the politics of Cuban-Americans in South Florida and across the country.

Traditionally, most Cuban-Americans, including Cubans who immigrated to the United States from the 1950s onward and American citizens with Cuban heritage, have been republicans, largely as the result of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and its association with John F. Kennedy, which left many Cubans distrusting the Democratic Party . It was also common for Cuban Americans to distance themselves from the Democratic Party, in spite of other Hispanic Americans’ identification with the Democratic party platform, due to the party’s association with socialist ideas, as perpetuated by Republican propaganda. Charlie Crist, the Democratic candidate who ran against Rick Scott in his successful 2014 reelection efforts, failed to galvanize enough support from the electorate to overcome a 1% margin and bring a Democrat to the Governor’s Mansion. Many pundits have attributed his loss to poor turnout in Miami Dade County and successful efforts by Scott’s campaign to turn out older Republicans and Cuban-Americans out to vote. However, the idea of a traditional “Cuban-American voting bloc” that allies with the Republican party is no longer as guaranteed as it used to be. With the rise of a racist bigoted nominee for President, several polls have shown that Miami’s Cuban population has started to drift from the Republican Party. Many pundits have contended that this is due to the unprecedented embarrassing rise of Donald Trump, but after my trip to Havana, Cuba, I think this shift could have been expected sooner rather than later and that it is NOT due to Donald Trump.

I was one of 15 students who went with David Axelrod and the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics Trip to Havana, Cuba.  I was excited to finally visit a country that is a major factor in all South Floridian and American politics. Since the December 17, 2014 announcement that the United States and Cuba would “normalize” relations, I have wanted to visit and finally understand what that even means for Cuba and the average Cuban citizen. Over meetings with foreign ambassadors, University of Havana professors, Cuban economists and political scientists, foreign and domestic journalists, and local Cuban artists, it became clear that the American perception of this “normalization” of relations is wildly different from the actual Cuban experience of it. It seems that many foreign media outlets like to obsess over the American embargo as the main reason Cuba has not prospered as much as expected since Obama’s announcement. The reality in Havana is quite different. Most Cuban citizens are restricted to working a set of 200 government-approved jobs for government-provided wages that cannot and do not provide for a sustainable or fair standard of living. Most Cuban citizens are required to engage in illegal, but tolerated, activities to subsidize their government paychecks which are the equivalent of 40 American dollars per month. Despite so-called economic reforms, including a lauded foreign investment law, several Cuban economists and nationals loved to tout in conversations, most Cuban citizens have not been effected by this normalization of relations.

Now let’s consider the likely possibility of the United States finally lifting the Cuban embargo in the next few years. This would require the House of Representatives and Senate, two institutions mired in partisan infighting and deluge, to engage in a vote to life the embargo and approve such a vote with a majority of both Houses of Congress before getting the President’s approval. I assumed before this trip to Cuba that the embargo was the biggest reason Cuba was not prospering as a country with the potential for a booming tourism and export industry. If you asked Cuban nationalist Nestor Garcia, a former government official who worked for Cuba’s version of the CIA, the United States is entirely to blame for Cuba’s socioeconomic struggles and is liable for more than 120 million dollars in reparations for the Cuban government and people. The Cuban government and Castro regime have committed to maintaining Cuba as a socialist country that will provide education and employment for every single citizen with a fair wage. If the embargo is to be lifted, the only reasonable way for the spoils to reach the average Cuban citizen would require the Cuban government to allow for more private businesses, looser more reasonable laws on foreign investment and real freedoms for their citizens. If the embargo is lifted without such actions by the Cuban government, Cuba is liable to turn into an inexpensive spring break location for American college students to steamroll over.

Miami-Dade County, the county in Florida with the highest percentage of Hispanics in the state with 66.7 percent of its population Latino, saw the lowest voter turnout rate in the state in the 2014 midterm elections with only 41 percent of its registered voters voting in the Governor’s race, for the legalization of medical marijuana and a host of other issues. So many Cuban-Americans have traditionally voted with the Republican Party due to their animosity and distrust with the Democratic Party. But as the older Cuban immigrant generation ages and new Cuban-American generations become eligible members of the electorate, the supposed Cuban-American voting bloc is fracturing. More Cuban-American citizens than ever are identifying with, supporting and voting for the Democratic Party. In my opinion, it is the responsibility of the Democratic Party to prioritize pressuring the Castro regime in Cuba and future regimes (oh yeah Cuba is having their first presidential elections in decades in February of 2018) to loosen restrictions on their citizens and allow for capitalist reforms. It might seem almost antithetical for the Democratic Party to advocate for more capitalism, but it would help bring Cuban citizens a real chance for prosperity and more Cuban-Americans to the Democratic Party.

Trump is definitely unlikely to win in Florida in November of this year; Nate Silver projects Hillary Clinton’s chances at greater than 75% of winning the state and general election. But in 2018, we’re having a governor’s race that could return sanity to the Governor’s Mansion and reason to the Florida Legislature if we’re lucky. Florida politics, beyond the general election, matter a great deal to the millions living here, and Cuba politics must be a priority if we want to galvanize the Cuban-American electorate to vote blue.


(Disclaimer from Mikala: Postings on this site are my own and do not represent the postings, strategies or opinions of any organization I work or are affiliated with).



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