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Bill Clinton won only about 25 percent of the Cuban-American vote in November 1992, but 40 percenta historic highin 1996. That was the year of the Brothers to the Rescue incident, in which Cuban MiGs shot down two Cessnas, killing four anti-Castro activists as they flew defiantly toward the island. Clinton promptly signed the Helms-Burton bill, which tightened trade sanctions on Cuba and appeased outraged exiles. In 2000, Al Gore mustered only 20 percent, but that was only a few months after the Elián González incident, in which the Clinton administration staged an FBI raid on a Little Havana house that spring to enforce a federal court's order to return the boy to his father in Cuba.
"Hillary learned her lesson, and it's 'You don't appeal to the Cuban-American vote by being a liberal,' " says GOP pollster Dario Moreno, who has made a career studying Cuban-American politics. "She wants to get percentages of the Cuban-American vote in the high 30s or low 40s, and she's not going to do that by saying she's for massive changewhat's perceived in the community as massive changein Cuba policy."
In other words, the small force of Cuban-Americans who are incensed by Bush's sanctions on family visits to Cuba even if it's a growing forceisn't big enough to change Hillary's mind. "It's what I call a drip effect," Clinton strategist Fernand Amandi says of Cuban-Americans leaving GOP ranks. Moreover, these defectors aren't becoming loyal Democrats. "They are shying away from partisan politics and becoming more independent," Amandi adds.
Even Cuban-American Republicans who are aggravated with Bush because of the Iraq War and agitated by the anti-immigration rhetoric of other Republicans will find it hard to stomach voting for a Democrat, says Amandi: "You have to remember, so much of what it means to be Cuban is to be Republican."
Obama's sweet Cuban concoction might have melted away in the Florida heat if not for Univision's September 9 Democratic Candidates Forum at the University of Miami. The front-runners' schedules had them in Iowa, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Californiaanywhere but Florida. Obama and Clinton had promised the Democratic National Committee that they would stay away from Florida until after its new January 29 primary, because the DNC had deemed the change in primary date a violation of party rules.
But the candidates had already committed to the unprecedented Univision forum. Democrats everywhere were saying the event symbolized the pivotal role that Latinos, most of whom vote Democratic, will play in next year's general election.
Democratic Party cognoscenti descended on Miami ahead of the forum to lobby journalists on the big issues for Hispanics: the Iraq War, immigration reform, lack of health care, the education crisis. And Cuba. Dozens dropped by the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables on the Sunday morning and afternoon before that evening's forum to participate in a conference that the New Democrat Network had organized to discuss the rise of Latino political power in the U.S.
Among them was New Jersey senator Menendez, who's a Clinton campaign co-chairman and in charge of its Hispanic outreach. His power in New Jersey stems from his stance as a social moderate who is fanatical about keeping the embargo on Cuba, including travel sanctions. New Jersey has about 100,000 Cuban-American voters; Menendez defeated Republican Thomas Kean by about 300,000 votes in last year's grueling Senate race.
I caught Menendez in a hallway just before he was due to address the conference and asked him to explain Hillary's endorsement of the Bush policy. "I think this is not the moment to make unilateral changes, especially with what's going on on the island," he replied. "This moment of whether or not Fidel Castro is just on his waning days, and how Raul will be able to try to maintain control, is not a moment to be showing changes in policy that sound like we're saying, 'We're willing to work with you.' Because what that allows Raul to do is go and say to the people [in Cuba] who want change, 'Well, you know what? Look, the Americans are beginning to deal with me.' It is a fundamentally wrong timing of a policy."
And then Menendez went in and told the conferees that Democrats must push for legislation that promotes family unification for America's immigrants. Except, apparently, for Cuban-Americans.
That evening, a crowd of 7,000 students, faculty, university administrators, and assorted Democratic VIPs packed into the Bank United Center. It was a notable event: As the candidates appeared on stage for mic checks, about 100 journalists squeezed into a conference room under the stands at the opposite end of the arena to watch the forum on big-screen TVs.
Univision news anchors Jorge Ramos and María Elena Salinas spent the first 45 minutes asking the candidates questions about Iraq, immigration and border fences, and relations between the U.S. and Latin America. It was not a debate; they employed a format in which each candidate didn't get a chance to respond to each question.
At one point, Clinton vowed that she would "absolutely" push Congress to pass "comprehensive" immigration-reform legislation during her first year in office, adding, "I am proud to work with my friend, Senator Menendez, on trying to make sure that in the process of doing immigration reform we don't separate families, we try to have family unification as one of the goals."