By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
MIAMI, Jan. 29 -- It has become a highly stylized ritual: Political candidates drop by the Versailles restaurant in Little Havana, slurp a cafecito, condemn Fidel Castro and loudly affirm, " Viva Cuba libre!" Television cameras capture it all.
The Republican primary in Florida this year was no different. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee stopped by, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney went a step further by donning a guayabera for his appearances in the area.
But as iconic as those moments at the Versailles have become, their symbolism may have been lost in a presidential election campaign less about the Cuban past than this nation's present, with a new generation of Cubans providing the decisive edge McCain needed against Romney. Cuban voters sided with McCain over Romney 5 to 1, not because McCain presented himself as the stronger bulwark against communism but because he was the moderate, pro-immigrant candidate they wanted.
"There's been a generational shift in Florida's Latino community," said Cecilia Mu¿oz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino group. "Cuban children are not from the refugee experience."
Dario Moreno, a professor at Florida International University and an expert in Cuban American politics, said that Cuban American voters were initially inclined toward McCain and Giuliani because of their strong stands on national security and moderate positions on other issues. When the Giuliani campaign seemed to lag, Cuban Americans switched to McCain, rolling up big margins for him.
"It was strategic voting," he said. "It lead to a bandwagon affect. People began to vote with a probable winner."
Republican candidates did not seem to see it coming. As usual, they strove to adopt the fiercest anti-Castro rhetoric, even as other issues -- the U.S. economy, the Iraq war and health care -- were the higher priorities of many Cuban American voters.
"Cuban Americans are voting on the same issues that other Floridians are voting on," Moreno said. "There is a lot of middle-class angst."
McCain was aided by the early support of South Florida's three Cuban American House members, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario and Lincoln D¿az-Balart. McCain also received the endorsement of Florida's Republican senator, Mel Martinez, who is also Cuban American.
On Tuesday, as contemporary Latin music played outside Precinct 418 here, voters explained that they have heard get-tough-on-Castro promises from Republican candidates before and those promises have not amounted to much.
"They always come and say 'Viva Cuba libre!' " and 'next year,' " said Jorge Chao, 51, a dry-cleaning manager who came to Miami from Cuba in 1980. "But it's been 51 years, and nothing has changed."
"I live here, not in Cuba," said Caridad Calzadilla, 53, a real estate agent. "The most important issue is the economy."
For Calzadilla and her husband, the top issues are taxes, home insurance and health coverage.
"I have relatives in Cuba," she said. "But I have to be a little bit selfish. I have to worry about myself."
About two-thirds of Cuban American voters are registered Republicans, though that number has been slipping. For years, politicians have courted them by opposing the Cuban president and promising aggressive bans on trade and travel to the island nation. In a debate at the University of Miami, the Republican candidates followed that line.
"The only thing they didn't promise was that the 82nd Airborne would be at the disposal of the Cuban American community," said Joe Garcia, former director of the Cuban American National Foundation and now director of NDN's Hispanic Strategy Center.
After the disputed presidential election in Florida in 2000, many voters thought that President Bush would recognize the loyalty of the Cuban Americans in South Florida who helped him win the state.
"Some in the Cuban American community thought we were owed something after 2000," said Allen Zaldivar, 27, a pharmacist whose parents came from Cuba. "But even since then, nothing has changed."
Under the Bush administration, enforcement of U.S. restrictions on Cuba travel has increased, and restrictions on travel and on private remittances to Cuba have been tightened, according to a Congressional Research Service report. But many Cuban Americans, particularly those most recently arrived, say that the trade and travel bans, though aimed at Castro, have hurt others instead.
"It's the people who suffer from the embargo," said Jose Canavaciolo, 31, a painting contractor who came here from Cuba in 1994. "Castro -- he was fine."
And then there was the immigration issue. Florida did not prove to be the cauldron of anti-illegal immigrant sentiment that Romney may have thought. About 58 percent of Republican voters told exit pollsters on Tuesday that illegal immigrants should either be offered a chance to apply for citizenship or allowed to stay as temporary workers -- positions roughly in line with McCain's. And those voters went for McCain by substantial margins. Forty percent said illegal immigrants should be deported, and that minority went for Romney.
"Every other Republican candidate is poison on that issue," Garcia said. "Most immigrants realize that the immigration debate is not about immigration. It's about xenophobia at best and racism at worst."