by Marc Fisher, Washington Post
When Sen. Marco Rubio stands before Miami’s historic Freedom Tower on Monday and announces that he is the second Cuban American to join the 2016 race for president of the United States, Gabriel Perez, Emilio Izquierdo and Mike Valdes will share a powerful sense of pride. This is the big sign that Cuban Americans have finally made it, they all say — accepted not only as refugees from communism or as successful businesspeople but as serious contenders for the most American job in the land.
But let the wave of pride surrounding the candidacies of Florida’s Rubio and fellow Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas subside, and Perez, Izquierdo, Valdes and many of their fellow Cuban Americans find themselves in surprising discord.
The idea of the Cuban American monolith, the notion that the estimated 2 million immigrants and their offspring constitute a single-issue ramrod that for a half-century has forced Washington into a hard line against the Castro brothers’ regime, is crumbling in the classic, perhaps inevitable, way: Time is turning immigrants into Americans.
“Over the last 15 years, and especially the last five years, the Cuban American community has undergone a major transformation,” said Fernando Amandi, whose research firm, Bendixen & Amandi International, regularly polls Cuban Americans. “In the most politicized Hispanic group in the country, there is now a cleavage in which the second and third generations, as well as more recent arrivals from Cuba, do not share the hard-line views and staunchly Republican affinity of the historic exile generation.”
President Obama handily won the vote of Cuban Americans between ages 18 and 50 in both of his elections, according to Amandi’s surveys. His recent research shows that Rubio and Cruz are not necessarily favorite sons at the ballot box. Rubio, who opposes easing the U.S. embargo against Cuba, “is literally advocating for policies that separate the more recent arrivals from their families who are still on the island,” Amandi said.
On the streets of Miami, the palpable pride in Rubio, Cruz and the other Cuban American senator, Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), even though he is under indictment on federal corruption charges, does not automatically translate into votes.
“Rubio, he’s not going anywhere,” said Perez, a retired mechanic at Miami’s airport who fled Cuba in 1961 and long ago concluded that stiff-arming the communist regime in Havana never had a prayer of working. “This thing Obama’s doing now, doing business with Cuba again, if America did it 40 years ago, Castro would have been gone.”
Perez points at the others at Domino Park in Miami’s Little Havana, many of them Cuban octogenarians trading quips over the clatter of domino tiles on a dozen outdoor tables. “Rubio is like the old guys here who can’t stop fighting,” Perez said. “They try the same idea for 40 years, and it never works and they just keep fighting.”
Twenty blocks down Little Havana’s main drag, Calle Ocho, Izquierdo, a 67-year-old limo driver who runs a Cuban patriots group on the side, develops a catch in his throat as he talks about two sons of exiles like himself now running for president.
“Two million Cubans and two possible presidents,” he said. “I’m very emotional about it.” Rubio doesn’t have his vote wrapped up yet, but the fact that he is Cuban weighs heavily in his favor. “This says we are a powerful community. And yes, emotion plays a role: Spaniards go by opinions and Anglos go by facts; we Cubans are a hybrid of the two.”
The defining moments in Izquierdo’s life came in Cuba, and his politics in the United States consistently reflect that. “I was 11 when Castro took the power,” he said. “I was 14 when Castro took my family’s property.” He fled in the Mariel boatlift emigration in 1980 and became a U.S. citizen six years later. What he wants from a presidential candidate now is the right answer to one question: “Are you going to represent the Cuban exiles? Because we don’t believe in relations with communists.”
Seventeen miles away, in the upper-middle-class suburb of Miami Lakes — a generation ago an Anglo enclave and now a mostly Cuban community — Mike Valdes, 38, owns Moda, a high-end boutique in which Spanish is used as the main language. The Rubio and Cruz candidacies “put us on the map, finally for something other than Castro, rum or Cohibas,” he said, referring to the brand of cigars.
But relations with Cuba don’t make Valdes’s political top-10 list. “There’s a lot of problems in this country,” he said. “We need to do for us before we start doing for other places.” Valdes remains a Republican because that’s how he was brought up, but he’s okay with Obama’s outreach to Cuba and looks forward to normalized trade and travel.
“Our grandparents’ generation is passing on, and my generation doesn’t really know their stories,” Valdes said. “Our Cuban part is there when you need it, but we’re losing the accents and the language. Soon, the Cubans will just be Miamians. Eventually, they’ll knock down the Freedom Tower and nobody will remember what it meant.”
The Freedom Tower, gateway to the United States for the first generation of Cuban refugees, stands at 17 stories, a rust-colored Spanish Renaissance structure that for decades sat abandoned in a desert of urban decay along Miami’s bayfront, surrounded by empty lots, a notoriously dangerous park and the city’s skid row. Today, the building is dwarfed by gleaming white 60-story condo towers, almost lost across from a busy and festive waterfront and the snazzy home of the Miami Heat. Downtown Miami’s boom is proud evidence of Cuban success, but the symbolic importance of the Freedom Tower is lost on younger Cubans, many here say.
The developing divide within the Cuban community is stark. Amandi’s latest poll shows that 66 percent of Cuban Americans born in the United States support Obama’s effort to normalize relations with the island nation, while 60 percent of those who arrived in this country before 1980 oppose the initiative.
Saturday’s meeting between Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro, the first such discussion in more than 50 years — as well as the State Department’s recommendation last week that the United States remove Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism — would have been unthinkable during the decades of Cuban American consensus on a hard no-contact policy toward their former home.
But now, the move away from a single-issue focus on Cuba is evident in Cuban Americans’ party affiliations. Twenty years ago, 70 percent of Cuban Americans called themselves Republicans. In the latest Florida International University Cuba Poll, that number was down to 53 percent.
Almost half of Cuban Americans are now U.S.-born, and they are reverting to a full spectrum of political perspectives, said Guillermo Grenier, a sociologist who has run FIU’s Cuba Poll for 24 years. “What it meant to be Cuban got really narrowed in the United States in the ’60s and ’70s, because the passion to overthrow Castro trumped everything else,” he said. “Now we’re seeing the full diversity of political views.”
In South Florida, immigrants who arrived after 1995 now make up a third of the Cuban community, and most are not Republicans, Grenier said. Similarly, next-
generation Cubans no longer reflexively hew to the GOP, and especially not to candidates who oppose opening up to the island.
“My students think of themselves as Republicans,” Grenier said, “but they keep asking, ‘How can Rubio be against making Cubans’ lives easier by being against investing in the island?’ Republicans can’t just play the Cuba card like they did 20 years ago.”
The labels that Miami-Dade County’s nearly 900,000 Cuban Americans use reveal their political journey.
Many in the first generation call themselves “Cuban exiles.” More recent immigrants often just say “Cuban.” And many descendants of those refugees call themselves “Cuban Americans” or just “Americans.”
“We are like any other immigrant group,” Perez said. “Our old identity is dying. In a few years, Miami will be like Tampa, where they all have Spanish names but almost nobody speaks Spanish.”
At Domino Park on Friday, only three of the 88 men and two women at the game tables said they were fluent in English.
“They’re isolated, like any new immigrant group,” said Rey Valdes, 71, a Cuban immigrant who is running for the Democratic nomination for a state House seat representing a district that spreads from Little Havana to Miami Beach. “That isolation allowed them to remain ideological. But their children understand this isn’t an ideological society. It’s a nation of pragmatists.”
Valdes said Cubans remain largely conservative and entrepreneurial but no longer exist in a political bubble.
“Rubio and Cruz running — to us this is like when Argentina got their pope,” he said, “but most Cubans under 40 or 50 see issues beyond the tyranny of Castro. We like that Rubio is running, but his rhetoric is from another era.”
Nancy Coto, 52, was 8 years old when her parents brought her to Miami. On paper her politics don’t differ much from her father’s, but her heart is sometimes in a different place.
“I share what he believes, but not that passion,” she said, and to demonstrate the difference, she shook her entire body to represent her father’s total devotion to any policy that could make the Castro brothers miserable. Then she went slack to show her own priorities: “Cuba’s just not on top of my list. If Obama wants to reach out to Cuba, it doesn’t bother me. I’m more concerned about jobs.”
Leslye and Eduardo Martin were barely teenagers when they left Cuba in the late 1990s. Living with their two small children in Miami Lakes, their new world is a classic suburban blend of long hours at work, a strong focus on the children and a long-term plan to live the American Dream and step up the economic ladder.
Leslye, who is 30 and works in health-care administration, calls herself a committed Republican and appreciates the help that her family got from Rubio in navigating the immigration bureaucracy. But his positions on Cuba don’t really factor into her vote for president. “I don’t even know where he stands on Cuba,” she said. “Our life is here.”
“As time passes, we leave Cuba behind,” said Eduardo, 31, a network engineer. “We never forget our roots, but we’re here and our job is to make the country better.” This country.