Will Cuban Americans vote for Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz?

logoby Kate Linthicum and Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

Ismary Guardarrama, a 17-year-old Cuban American, was thrilled to be chosen to stand behind Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a recent rally here.

Her older relatives joked that she was committing treason.

Her grandfather — and to a lesser degree, her parents — have embraced conservative politics since they fled Communist-ruled Cuba in the 1970s. They don’t trust Sanders’ Democratic socialism and his call for political revolution.

“This generation is different from my generation,” said her mother, Marelye Perez. “They didn’t suffer.”

Yet Perez, who has supported Republicans in the past, is leaning toward Democrat Hillary Clinton this year.

The family’s divide reflects a deeper rift among Latino voters in a year when Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, both sons of Cuban immigrants, are the first Latinos to seek the White House from a major political party.

Neither is assured of strong Latino support, polls suggest, should either win the GOP nomination.

That’s partly because nearly two-thirds of Latinos who are eligible to vote are of Mexican ancestry. They often differ sharply from Cuban Americans on hot-button political issues such as immigration and foreign trade, and a majority of them have voted Democratic in recent presidential races.

Increasingly, Cuban Americans tend to be less virulently anti-Castro and more open to better ties with Cuba than their parents — or than Cruz and Rubio, who both oppose President Obama’s detente with the former Cold War adversary.

The administration restored diplomatic relations with Cuba last summer and has eased trade and travel restrictions. Despite sharp differences on human rights and other issues, Obama will visit Havana on March 20-22, the first sitting U.S. president to go in 90 years.

Prior to campaigning for Tuesday’s winner-take-all GOP primary in Florida, neither Cruz nor Rubio has aggressively sought to court Latino voters in other states.

Rubio has sought to distance himself from his role in the failed 2013 effort in Congress to create a pathway to legal status for 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, and has promised to end a deportation deferral program launched by Obama.

Cruz has agreed with large parts of GOP front-runner Donald Trump’s pledge to deport all 11 million immigrants and to build a wall along the Mexican border.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether one is running on his record or away from his record,” said Javier Palomarez, president of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the country’s largest Hispanic business association.

Unlike other Latino populations, which form large voting blocs in New York and the West, Cuban Americans are concentrated in Florida. But a generational shift is changing the political landscape as younger voters, many born in the U.S., reject their parents’ conservative views.

“You can see across the years since 2002 a shift to Democratic Party registration among Cuban Americans,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center in Washington.

In addition, many Cubans who came to America in the 1980s and 1990s were seeking economic opportunity, not escaping political repression, making their politics less ideological.

Part of the political shift, experts say, is also because of the death nearly two decades ago of Jorge Mas Canosa, the ultra-conservative, stridently anti-Castro leader who held a firm grip over most of Florida’s exile community.

When Miami radio host Enrique Santos registered to vote 23 years ago, he didn’t think twice about his party affiliation.

“I registered as a Republican because that was the right Cuban American thing to do,” said Santos, now 41.

But over time, he found himself at odds with the GOP. A gay man who voted for Republican nominee John McCain in 2008, Santos helped reelect Obama in 2012, in part because of the president’s support for marriage equality.

Santos was asked to introduce Obama at a rally that year. His father, who had fled Cuba’s repression, “didn’t talk to me for like a week,” he recalled.

Yet Everardo Santos, Enrique’s father, plans to vote for Trump, not either of the Cuban Americans on the primary ballot Tuesday.

“Even though I’m Cuban, I don’t believe that just because a candidate is Cuban I should vote for them,” he said.

In Miami’s Little Havana district this week, old-timers chewed over the politics and guava pastries at Café Versailles, an iconic restaurant known as a gathering spot for Cuban exiles.

Joel Rodriguez, 83, sipped a Cuban espresso and rattled off the views that many of his generation embrace: free enterprise, conservative social values, refusal to negotiate with Cuba’s Communist leaders.

Rodriguez will vote for Rubio, who repeated his opposition to Obama’s Cuba policy in Thursday night’s Republican debate in Miami.

Obama is “negotiating with an assassin,” Rodriguez complained. Rubio, on the other hand, “is a smart young man. Plus, he’s Cuban.”

Across town, in a trendy arts district known as Wynwood, younger Cuban Americans are drawn to graffiti-tagged galleries in old industrial buildings.

On a recent night, Fernando Santos, 33, and his friends sipped beers outside a bar called Gramps, where a DJ played Rihanna’s latest track. He and his family left Cuba 20 years ago.

“It’s time for Cuba to integrate with the rest of the world,” he said. “Cuba can’t be stuck in the same place for another 50 years. You have to progress.”

Santos hasn’t decided how to vote. His friend Juan Sanchez, 36, has no doubts. He already cast an early primary ballot for Clinton.

“I support Hillary,” he said, “because she supports women, she supports gays, she supports Latinos.”

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