WASHINGTON—Fidel Castro's exit from the world stage—an eventuality that gained renewed urgency with his relinquishing of presidential power last week—could shake up decades of Republican dominance among Cuban-American voters.
South Florida's large Cuban-American population has long been one of the party's most loyal constituencies, rallied to political events by cries of "Cuba si, Castro no." At least 8 in 10 of Florida's nearly half-million Cuban-American voters backed President Bush in 2000, when he won the state by just 537 votes, though a survey after the 2004 election showed a slip.
But as the number of hard-line exiles declines—replaced by second- and third-generation Cuban-Americans, who polls show are more concerned with pocketbook issues than foreign policy—some suggest that the loss of Castro's visage could erode the potency of the voting bloc.
"Long run, I see the opportunities for Democrats," said Sergio Bendixen, a Miami-based pollster. "It is now fish or cut bait for the Republican Party and all these politicians promising for so long they would do something about Cuba."
The key Republican bloc has been crucial to landing Florida's much-coveted 27 electoral votes. In 1996, President Clinton secured 40 percent of the Cuban-American vote and won Florida.
Republican Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, a Cuban-American, agreed that a Castro-less Cuba could pose new complications for the Republican Party.
"I think there'll be change and I think there'll be challenges," Martinez said, adding that any changes would be years away, when democracy was restored to Cuba. "It'll be a lot more complicated to make the case. It won't be just a simple one issue where the Democrats have abdicated the field, really, on foreign policy. I think there'll be more of a challenge because the issues will be more varied."
Should Castro no longer be in the picture, political strategists suggest, there'd be room to discuss other topics, including helping the island establish democracy, along with more traditional U.S. domestic issues such as education and health care.
"Republicans have had a lot of bark and no bite, but the bark has been enough," said Joe Garcia, a former executive director of the Cuban-American National Foundation and the director of the New Democrat Network's Hispanic Strategy Center. "Once Castro is gone you can bark all you want, but Castro's not there. You've got to develop a more realistic agenda that's in tune with the Cuban-American reality."
Many Republicans, though, scoff at the suggestion that a rock-solid Cuban-American allegiance that dates to the 1980s will fade, arguing that the party will remain engaged in establishing democracy on the island and rebuilding its infrastructure.
They reject the contention that Cuban-Americans are one-issue voters, with Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., suggesting that it was "pretty insulting" to suggest that it's beneficial for the party to have Castro around.
"Cuban-Americans will still be analyzing the positions taken by the parties and candidates after a post-Castro Cuba," said Florida state Rep. David Rivera, a former Republican Party of Florida strategist who publicly warned the White House two years ago to crack down on Castro or lose support at the polls. "People are going to be looking at which party or which candidate will provide the better plan for developing a prosperous post-Castro Cuba, which nominees will be more proactive in developing economic and political development of a post-Castro Cuba, who has the better immigration reform. All those issues are going to remain important."
Republicans argue that a transition to democracy would boost their party because it would suggest that the Bush administration's tough stance paid off.
"It would be a vindication for all of our work," said Albert Martinez, a Cuban-American and campaign spokesman for Republican Florida gubernatorial candidate Tom Gallagher. "The Cuban-American community, the Republican Party and conservatives have held the line, while Democrats and liberals have visited Cuba and kissed the ring."
But Bendixen notes that the vaunted Cuban-American voter turnout already is fading.
In the early 1980s, he noted, the turnout among Cubans born in Cuba reached as much as 80 percent in general elections and 60 percent to 70 percent in primaries, making them a powerful electoral force. But those numbers began to decline after 2000 as Castro celebrated 40 years in office, Bendixen said.
"They seem to be thinking that they could elect 100 members to Congress and it wasn't going to have an effect on Castro," Bendixen said. "They still loved Bush, but kind of accepted the fact nothing was going to happen."
In the 2004 election, Bendixen noted, Cuban-Americans "weren't voting any higher numbers than anyone else"—in the 60 percent range.
Sen. Martinez agreed there may be challenges to securing the same level of intensity and turnout if Castro is no longer a factor.
"I would agree that a lot of that passion would dissipate in terms of voter participation, involvement in the presidential elections," he said.
But he suggested that Cuban-Americans, like many Jewish voters who are "intensely loyal" to Israel, would continue to view events through a Cuban prism, "and there'll still be a very strong want and desire to have a strong Cuba voice in political affairs."
However, some analysts have suggested that Cuban-Americans may be more moderate in some areas than the Republican Party, and Sen. Martinez called it a "mistaken tag line" to dub Cubans "very conservative," noting that beyond foreign policy, Cuban-Americans aren't a "typical right-wing conservative group."
"There's religion, pro-family, values issues, but on the social agenda, the role of government, there's a lot more flexibility in that community," he said.
Ana Navarro, a Miami Republican lobbyist, suggested that strategists who are expecting a shift in voting patterns should look at a smaller, though reliably Republican, voting bloc: Nicaraguan-Americans.
Loyal to former President Reagan because of his backing of the anti-Sandinista Contras, Nicaraguans in the United States remain overwhelmingly Republican.
"You'd better believe after 47 years of communism, democracy is not going to be established overnight and it's going to require an enormous amount of support, and I would expect the U.S. to lead those efforts," Navarro said. "That's going to be an important consideration for Cuban-Americans."
She noted, "There's such a thing as gratitude, nostalgia and remembrance. Ronald Reagan has been out of the presidency for almost 20 years, and yet I think most Nicaraguans remain as staunchly loyal and nostalgic as they were in 1985."
(Reinhard reported from Miami.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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