Of the simple rules in Florida elections, few stand out like this one: Don’t look wobbly over Castro — especially in an election year.
President Barack Obama’s administration didn’t seem to get the memo.
The administration granted the niece of Fidel Castro a visa to speak at a gay-rights summit in California last week. Mariela Castro repaid the kindness by engaging in the same type of Orwellian and hypocritical doubletalk as her uncle and father, Cuban President Raul Castro.
Then she made sure to bang in the final public-relations coffin nail.
"I would vote for President Obama," she said, according to Agence France-Presse. "I think he’s sincere and speaks from the heart."
Count that de facto endorsement of Obama as an independent expenditure for his challenger, Mitt Romney. The Republican’s campaign made sure to denounce the Castro clan at every turn.
AFP noted that Castro’s trip has been denounced by "opposition Republicans." But it utterly failed to mention that Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Broward congresswoman, and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson (the only statewide elected Democrat) also opposed the granting of her visa.
Nelson specifically raised the issue of a wrongfully jailed American in Cuba.
"Allowing Raul’s daughter to come to the U.S. when the regime still holds Alan Gross makes no sense," Nelson said.
Privately, some of Obama’s biggest Florida supporters agree. They just can’t fathom this. It’s not as if Castro is some wayward child. She’s a face and mouthpiece of the dictatorship.
Obama’s defenders are quick to counter with two points: 1) During President George W. Bush’s term, Castro was allowed to travel three times to the United States and 2) Cuban-hardliners who opposed the visa opposed Obama anyway. So it was a wash.
The president doesn’t need more bad headlines. Despite the unemployment rate shrinking, the pool of the unemployed remains staggeringly high. His attacks on Romney’s business background backfired when a campaign surrogate dissed the criticisms. And then Nelson and his DNC chair split with him over Cuba.
Cluelessness over Cuba can be bipartisan, though.
President Bush’s administration allowed Castro in 2001 and 2002. But she wasn’t as much a face of the regime then. It wasn’t a presidential election year. And there were precious few blogs and no Twitter to stoke the opposition.
Earlier this month, Gov. Rick Scott came to Miami, signed a Cuba crackdown bill favored by the exile community and then undermined it by calling the bill unenforceable. Then he flip-flopped as Cuban-American Republican politicians beat him up on radio.
If Scott were on the ballot this November, his move would cost him dearly. Cuban voters are overwhelmingly Republican, favoring GOP candidates by 15-17 percentage points depending on the presidential election, according to a September 2011 study “The Political Incorporation of Cuban Americans: Why Won’t Little Havana Turn Blue?”
Co-authored by University of Miami political science professor Casey Klofstad, the groundbreaking study showed that the Cuban community’s vote remains largely Republican despite the influx of so-called “economic refugees,” many of whom came during and after the 1980 Mariel boatlift and tend to lean left.
But they don’t really vote in the same high proportions as the right-leaning pre-Mariel voters. Still, as popular sentiment continued to shift against Republicans in 2008, more Cuban voters started to identify more with the Democratic Party.
The study showed the pre-Mariel voters are more attuned to the Cuban embargo and Cuba-travel restrictions — support for which has plummeted in the Cuban community overall between 1991 and 2008. In the community, strengthening the embargo has more support (45 percent) than continuing the travel ban (34 percent), according to Florida International University polls.
Mariela Castro decried the embargo and travel restrictions.
“It’s not fair,” she said, “you can’t allow a small group of delinquents to continue to manipulate and make it difficult for the U.S. and Cuba to have a relationship."
Apparently, Castro has a short memory. Her uncle Fidel expelled a number of homosexuals — labeled as “undesirables” by the Cuban regime — during the 980 Mariel boatlift. He also rounded up gays during the AIDS crisis and had them sequestered in sanitariums.
Oh, the irony. His niece, a sexologist, now comes to the United States and lectures for an end to “our patriarchal and homophobic culture.”
“We will establish relationships on the basis of social justice and social equality,” she said. “It seems like a Utopia, but we can change it."
Too bad the one talking about change last week was Mariela Castro and not Obama.