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Is Cuban Loyalty to the Republican Party Fading?

October 19, 2009 By Carlos Miller in Miami: Local NewsMiscellaneous  | 5 Comments


Above: Cuban-Americans celebrate at the Obama victory party seconds after he was announced the winner in the 2008 Presidential election.

To understand Miami Cuban politics, one must go back to the Bay of Pigs invasion, which some Miami Cubans will tell you that President John F. Kennedy blundered.

The invasion took place two years after Fidel Castro seized power from Fulgencio Batista, a U.S.-backed dictator who would order public executions of children.

On April 17, 1961, a brigade of CIA-trained Cuban exiles invaded a beach in southern Cuba with the expectation that the United States Air Force would provide them air support.

The air support never came. Kennedy called it off when it became apparent that the American involvement in the invasion was no secret and had the potential to lead to a full-scale war against the Soviet Union.

More than 1,200 exiles were captured and 118 killed in the failed invasion.

Although Kennedy negotiated a deal with Castro to exchange $53 million in food and medicine for the release of the prisoners 20 months later, his credibility within the exile community was destroyed and the majority of Cuban exiles became diehard republicans.

Or so the story goes.

“Our perception is that JFK fell asleep at the switch,” said Henry Gomez, a Cuban American born in Miami who is a main contributor on the right-wing blog Babalu, which bills itself as an “island on the net without a bearded dictator.”

Democratic presidents since then have been perceived as dupes.

Such is the story you will hear if you ask any of the old-timers at Versailles Restaurant on Eight Street, which is ground zero for Cuban right wing politics. Here you will find crowds of Cubans gather to protest or celebrate or to just talk about everything they lost after the revolution. As if it just happened yesterday.

In fact, some theorists speculate that Cuban Americans were behind Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, which is only one of several theories that have been mentioned over the last four decades.

But there is another view that is rarely mentioned

A prevailing perception exists that the majority of Cuban exiles actually approved of Kennedy, even after his decision to call off air support. After all, more than 40,000 cheered him on at a rally in the Orange Bowl in 1962 where he accepted full blame for the blunder and assured the brigade flag would fly over a free Cuba.

“Would you get the entire exile community at a Barack Obama rally if they didn’t support him,” asked Giancarlo Sopo, a Cuban American born in Miami who is a research analyst at Bendixen & Associates, a Miami-based public opinion research company.

“I think the record speaks for itself.”

Sopo also said that Cubans did not declare their loyalty to the Republican Party until former President Ronald Reagan took office and visited Miami wearing a guayabera and told the crowd “Viva Cuba Libre. Cuba si, Castro no.”

That was in 1983. A Little Havana street was named after Reagan shortly after.  And the Cubans immersed themselves in American politics like they never had before.

“Before that, Cubans used to run as democrats,” Sopo said.

In fact, one year before Reagan made his famous speech in Little Havana, republican Cuban American Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart ran for the Florida House of Representatives as a democrat.

He was also president of the Dade County Young Democrats and the Florida Young Democrats as well as a member of the Dade County Democrat Executive Party.

“And he was head of the Florida for Ted Kennedy campaign in 1980,” said Sopo, a former republican who switched parties during George W. Bush’s administration.

In fact, Diaz-Balart’s entire family was democrat until 1985.

One year later, Lincoln, along with his brother Mario, ran for the Florida House of Representatives as republicans and won.

Today, the brothers are U.S. Congressmen serving South Florida along with republican Ileana Ros-Lehiten and have spent the bulk of their career running a stoutly anti-Castro platform.

All three were reelected in 2008 despite facing the fiercest democratic opponents of their careers.

“One of the problems is that the democrats gave up on the Cuban American community a long time ago,” Sopo said. “They made no effort to reach it.”

“But that changed with Obama. He understood that the way for Democrats to make inroads among Cuban Americans was not by patronizing them with visits to Versailles or by talking about Fidel Castro, but rather by addressing the concerns most middle class families face.”


Above: Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, a Cuban-American, had tears of joy in his eyes after Obama had won the presidency.

So has there been a shift in partisanship within the Cuban community?

Sopo believes there has been a shift because President Barack Obama received 35 percent of the Cuban American vote when Senator John Kerry received 25 percent of the vote in 2004 (and other democratic presidential candidates received about 20 percent of the vote).

But Gomez doesn’t really see it.

“The shift has been marginal at best,” he said. “Obama didn’t get as many Cuban votes as Clinton did in 1996.”

Clinton received between 35 to 40 percent of the Cuban American vote that year. But then his approval ratings went down within the Cuban American community after he authorized a raid to seize Elian Gonzalez from his Little Havana family to return him to his biological father in Cuba.

The Elian saga, which took place in 2000, divided the community and most likely caused Al Gore to lose the election, considering that was the notorious election that came down to Florida’s 538 votes.

But today, Elian is a distant memory for most Cuban Americans. And Fidel is a distant problem.

Like most Americans, Cuban Americans are more concerned with the economy, healthcare and their children’s futures than about some aging dictator on a Caribbean island.

And the younger generation, whether they were born here or emigrated here, might not agree with Castro, but most reject the hardline stance that has not really done much to remove him from power.

This became evident during a protest last month at Versailles over the concert that Colombian singer Juanes performed in Havana.

Some of the older hardliners were outraged at the concert, accusing Juanes and anybody who supported him of being a communist.

Once the concert ended, about 200 hardliners gathered at Versailles where they began destroying CDs with Juanes’ name scribbled across them, apparently as a symbol of destroying his real CDs.

But as the night progressed, more than 400 counter-protesters showed up, mostly younger Cubans who arrived from Cuba within the last decade, voicing their support for the concert.

The younger Cubans ended up forcing the older exiles across the street where they stood on a corner continuing their protest.

By the end of the evening, the pro-Juanes protesters stood on three corners of the intersections, including Versailles, while the older exiles maintained their single corner.


Above: Younger, more moderate, Cubans outnumber the older hardliners during a protest against the Juanes concert at Versailles restaurant last month.

Below: An older hardliner is arrested after he allegedly punched a woman during the same protest.


“They have no voice anymore,” said Alfredo Martinez during the protest, a 29-year-old Cuban immigrant who arrived in Miami during the early 1990s.

“This is our time now. We don’t believe in Castro but we believe in Juanes. He did more for Cuba in one concert than they have done in 40 years.”

In the past, moderate Cubans would keep their mouths shut out of fear of getting attacked or murdered.

History of Violence

For the first two decades, Cuban exiles were more concerned with overthrowing Castro than gaining a political foothold in the United States.

They formed paramilitary groups like Omega 7 and Alpha 66, both which have been linked to terrorist activity in Miami and in Cuba. Many of its members were Bay of Pigs veterans.

In 1968, Cuban exile Orlando Bosch was convicted for shooting a bazooka at a Polish freighter that was trading with Cuba and spent four years in prison.

1976, he was arrested in Venezuela for an alleged role in the bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed a 73 passengers on board, including the Cuban national fencing team.

Also arrested in Venezuela for that incident was Luis Posada Carriles, who escaped from jail in 1985 and later admitted to a New York Times reporter that he bombed a Cuban hotel in 1997 that killed an Italian tourist.

Bosch and Posada were both on the CIA payroll during the 1960s. Some believe Bosch can be seen in the Zapruder film footage of JFK’s assassination.

But Bosch denied any involvement in the assassination, insisting he was in Miami the entire time.

But Gomez points out that the man accused of killing Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, had Marxist sympathies.

“The one guy who has been positively linked to JFK’s assassination was not a right wing wacko,” said Gomez.

“He was a commie supporter of Fidel Castro who had at one point defected to the USSR.”

The violence within the Cuban exile community became increasingly bloody in Miami during the 1970s with assassinations and bombings towards people and businesses who sought a peaceful co-existence with Cuba.

And even if the violence did scale down during the 1980s and 1990s, which incidentally was when the Cubans became a dominant political force in Miami, it remained simmering beneath the surface.

In 1992, Human Rights Watch released a report stating that hard-line Miami exiles have created an environment in which “moderation can be a dangerous position.”

In the late 1990s, music fans were pelted with rocks and eggs as they tried entering a concert featuring bands from Cuba.

And as recent as 2008, a group of Cuban exiles chased away a group of Code Pink protesters from Versailles who were demanding that Carriles be jailed for his previous terrorist activities.

But even on that day, there were less than 200 Cuban exiles in front of Versailles, a fraction of the estimated 795,000 Cubans who call Miami home.

And of the 200 protesters, only a handful resorted to physical intimidation tactics, a group that call themselves Vigilia Mambisa consisting of older exiles who don matching t-shirts and accuse anybody who does not agree with their hardline stance as being communists.

“Some people question if that group is led by people infiltrated by the Castro regime because all they do is make us look bad,” said Sopo, who points out that 77 percent of the Cuban American community reject the extremist tactics of this group.

“The spy is the one who stands on your side and says he agrees with you but publicly sabotages you.”


Above: Code Pink protesters call for the arrest of Luis Posada Carriles, who is believed to be responsible for the downing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people.

Below: Cuban hardliners show their support for Posada Carriles.



Gaining political clout

It is impossible to explain the Cuban loyalty to the Republican Party with a single theory.

It is true that many Cuban exiles, especially Bay of Pigs veterans, held deep resentment against Kennedy. That is evident in this CIA memo detailing planned demonstrations and threats against the president during a Miami visit shortly before his assassination.

And it is also true that the republicans did not become the republican power voting bloc until the early 1980s when the republicans made a specific effort to recruit Cubans into its party, including Reagan wearing a guayabera.

But it’s also true that at the time, the republicans were considered the weaker party in Florida. The democrats maintained a stronghold in the region where they would normally run in one-party races, which provided a golden opportunity for Cubans to enter the political arena as republicans.

And one of the reasons they suddenly became so politically involved was over perceived discrimination in 1980 – the year of the Mariel boatlift – which was when the county commission passed an English only ordinance.

Also, there was an increase in Spanish media in Miami, which allowed the Cubans to get their message across to its community.

Jeb Bush, whose father was vice president at the time and had become chairman of the Dade County Republican Party, was also instrumental in recruiting Cubans.

But perhaps the main reason can be attributed to a man named Jorge Mas Canosa, who founded the Cuban American National Foundation in 1981, which became one of the most influential lobbying groups in the United States.

“Jorge’s rise to power brings and end to the car bombs and bookstores being blown up,” Sopo said. “He formalized the power structure of the Cuban American community.”

But it was recently revealed that Mas Canosa funded some of the terrorism activity against the Cuban government in the 1960s.

Nevertheless, by the 1980s, he had become one of the most powerful men in Miami through his telecommunications company.

“Mas Canosa was the Cuban republican brand as we became to know it in the 80s and 90s. That caricature that has defined us,” Sopo said, whose father, a Bay of Pigs veteran, was good friends with Mas Canosa.

But today, the CANF has become much more moderate in its approach to politics.

In fact, the former executive director of the CANF is a popular democrat named Joe Garcia, who recently lost against Mario Diaz-Balart, but gave him the toughest race of his 22-year career.

Garcia has since been nominated by President Obama to be director of the Office of Minority Economic Impact and Diversity of the Department of Energy

History repeating itself?

The political story of the Cubans is not much different than the story of the Irish, who came to the United States in the mid-19th century only to experience severe discrimination.

In New York City, they ended up joining the weaker party, which was the democrats, and took control of Tammany Hall, the democratic political machine at the time.

There were scandals, corruption and even a notorious draft riot that left hundreds dead, but they became a political powerhouse for decades.

And from that era emerged Joe Kennedy, whose grandparents emigrated from Ireland, and who was said to have made his fortune through bootlegging.

But by 1960, his son became the first Irish-American president.

We have yet to see a Hispanic-American achieve presidency, but that will come in time.

And we shouldn’t be surprised if that candidate turns out to be a Cuban-American.

And we should be even less surprised if that candidate turns out to be a democrat.

“The new generation of Cuban Americans see the world through a different prism than their parents,” Sopo said. “Their allegiance to the Republican Party is much more diluted.”


Above: A Cuban-American wearing a Cuban flag as a shirt shows his support for Obama during his victory party after the 2008 election.

Related Categories: Miami: Local News, Miscellaneous,

Carlos Miller is a featured writer at Miami Beach 411. He also operates Photography is Not a Crime, a blog about photographer rights, New Media and First Amendment issues.

See more articles by Carlos Miller.

See more articles by Carlos Miller

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5 Comments on

"Is Cuban Loyalty to the Republican Party Fading?"

Richard says:

Very cool story.

Posted on 10/19/2009 at 10:48 AM

Gasper says:

who cares. Cubans & this story sucks

Posted on 10/19/2009 at 8:35 PM

Sungal&Gingie; says:

I thought the Spanish population in Florida was Republican because they’re largely Catholic, and the church urges them to vote pro-life.

Posted on 10/20/2009 at 11:47 PM

Carlos Miller says:


If that was the case, then Puerto Ricans and Mexicans would also vote republican because they are also Roman Catholics.

But they mostly vote democrat.

Posted on 11/05/2009 at 3:15 PM

Marco says:

Some of the most racist and bigoted people I have ever met , I have met in the ranks of the older Miami Cubans.

I say this as a Cuban from another state.

Posted on 12/02/2013 at 12:34 PM

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