Cuban Americans Vote With Their Feet Against The Travel Prohibition.

The flights from Miami to Cuba go full of Cuban Americans.


On Friday, November 5, Foreign Policy published my article “Not Your Father’s Cuba”. In it, I argued that the election of Cuban American Senator Marco Rubio and the rise of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to lead the Committee of Foreign Relations of the House of Representatives did not mean that the Cuban American community, much less the American people, were giving Congress a mandate to implement their ideas about U.S. policy towards Cuba.

The article demonstrated how in the issue of American policy toward Cuba:  “....over recent decades, a funny thing has happened: The Cuban exile community, in Miami and elsewhere in the United States, has grown apart from the politicians who represent its interests in Washington. Miami's Cubans may keep voting for Ros-Lehtinen and Rubio, but they no longer agree with them."

Two major demographic shifts explain this change: The rise of the U.S born Cuban Americans and the numerical prevalence in the Cuban-American community of the immigrants who came from Cuba after 1994:

         The rise of the U.S born Cuban Americans is transforming the political culture of Miami. They did not live the tragic experiences of their parents before they left Cuba. They grew up in an American society in which democratic values and pragmatism are more widespread than in communist Cuba and also than in their parents’ Cuba of the fifties and sixties--a society in which a political culture of martyrdom and all-or-nothing polarization prevailed.

         For the most recent waves of Cuban immigrants to the United States, the most crucial event was not the Cold War or the triumph of the revolution in 1959 but what is known in Cuba as the “Special Period,” a time of great scarcity and duress experienced by the Cubans in the island after the collapse of the Soviet Union and more than 70 % of Cuban foreign trade. I argued that the exile leadership missed a perfect opportunity to show a constructive attitude toward the people in Cuba when instead of advocating for an end to the embargo, the Cuban American National Foundation lobbied the Clinton administration to crack down on Cuban American travel and remittances to their relatives in the island. "What Cubans -- even those who were just as disenchanted with the communist regime as the first-generation exiles -- saw when they looked at Miami was a group fixated on punishing Castro, even if it came at the expense of the Cuban people."

From these two ideas, my article concluded that:  Neither “Ros-Lehtinen nor Rubio speaks to the aspirations and outlook of this new majority." The article caused a stir, both in favor and against.  I was pleased to see it discussed on the Daily Kos and widely shared within the Cuban American community and by many other Americans constructively interested in Cuba.

Not surprisingly, it also drew criticism.  One pro-embargo group in particular, the "Capitol Hill Cubans" (CHC) took aim at the article, and in the process, failed to distinguish between democracy and McCarthyism, elections and issue polls, arguments and personal attacks (was it just me, or did they basically try to call former director of the Cuban American National Foundation Joe Garcia Joseph Stalin??). The first rule of politics is that when someone falls for ad-hominem attacks, he is simply demonstrating his lack of ideas. I will not dignify personal insults with an answer but let me address the “confusion” about elections and polls.

My article began by recognizing a fact:Cuban Americans who disagree with their elected representatives’ position about U.S policy toward Cuba keep voting for them.  That is precisely why nobody should take their vote as symbolic of a support for the traditional position of Cuban American legislators against all travel to Cuba, including Cuban American travel to Cuba.

Elections are not single issue but aggregated choices. People, when they vote, select between alternative clusters of values, narratives, interests, personal sympathies, and other factors. To assume that the Cuban American vote for Ros-Lehtinen and Marco Rubio implied a support for their denial of the American right to travel would require at minimum to demonstrate that this was the most salient and relevant issue for their electorate. That was not the case. Most polls confirm that the central issue that determined 2010 voter turnout in South Florida was the economy and particularly, foreclosures and unemployment rates.

Cuba was not a deciding issue of the campaign. Contrary to what the Capitol Hill Cubans want us to believe, those who promote strengthening the embargo (including a decrease in frequency of Cuban American travel), such as Mario Diaz Balart, David Rivera and Marco Rubio, did not defend their out of touch position about U.S policy toward Cuba “strongly and publicly”. In fact, they and other pro-sanctions candidates, have lowered the salience of the issue when talking to Cuban American constituents on the campaign trail since 2006.

David Rivera and Marco Rubio won their seats not because they advocate draconian policies against the Cuban people but because there was a national tidal wave against the Democratic Party due to the economic crisis. Nothing disproves the absurd theory of the 2010 mandate in favor of strengthening the embargo more than the fact that many Democrats who supported it lost their electoral bids. The American people (let’s not forget that American policy toward Cuba must serve the national interest not the narrow views of any community, no matter how connected it is to the topic) deserve a more mature discussion than CHC provided on this occasion.

Someone must ask Bob Menendez, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, David Rivera, Albio Sires and Marco Rubio how they defend the prohibition to travel to Cuba for the rest of Americans when their constituents are voting the opposite with their feet their feet at record numbers. Why, if they believe so much in prohibiting American travel to Cuba, have they been unable to convince their fellow Cuban Americans?  They know better.  If Cuban Americans really support the travel ban, why would almost 300, 000 go to the island in 2010, 100, 000 more than in 2009? More than ten daily flights to Havana, Cienfuegos, Holguin and Camaguey are planned for the end of the year holidays. Elections or no elections, polls or no polls, the planes to Cuba are full with the constituents of the same politicians who advocate a prohibition to travel for the rest of their fellow Americans.

The policy implications of this fact are simple. If President Obama uses the executive prerogatives, given to him by Article 2 of the Constitution, to end the travel ban or to widen the general licenses to American travel to Cuba, there will be hysteria, resentment, lack of civility and hate among some lobbyists on Capitol Hill and a small segment of the Cuban exile community that continues to cling to the status quo, in spite of the ground shifting beneath them.  In most Cuban and Cuban American homes, ending a counterproductive and un-American policy will be cause for happiness.