Republican presidential race could come down to two Cuban Americans

Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio after a Republican presidential primary debate last month in Des Moines.
Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio after a Republican presidential primary debate last month in Des Moines. AP

For 50 years Cuban exiles have dreamed of the day they would elect one of their own to be president of Cuba.

This year, they might actually see one elected — to be president of the United States.

Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both sons of Cuban immigrants, head into Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary as two of the Republican Party’s top contenders for the 2016 nomination. That one of them could win marks an exceptional feat for a community only two generations removed from political exile.

“This race could come down to the two of them,” said former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican backing Jeb Bush for president who was the first Cuban American in the U.S. Senate. “It’s really remarkable.”

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Last week, Cruz became the first Hispanic in history to win the Iowa caucuses. Together, he and Rubio took more than half the vote — nearly 51 percent — in a state not known for its ethnic diversity.

Yet there were few headlines proclaiming Cruz’s win and Rubio’s third-place finish as a victory for Latinos.

“Where is the media on this, right?” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Tuesday on Fox News. “I mean, this is a big deal.”

It is. But Cruz and Rubio themselves didn’t play it up. They don’t campaign as trailblazing Hispanics.

Their race is white, so they don’t stick out, noted Cristina Garcia, a Cuban-American novelist who lives in California and has explored the diaspora in her fiction.

“Does race go deeper than immigration status? It almost seems like an afterthought [that they’re Latinos]. It they were black Latinos, that would flip everybody out because most of the country doesn’t even know black Latinos exist. So I think, actually, in the American drama, race is still a bigger hurdle,” she said. “They’re white, privileged males, and they don’t speak with an accent. They’re not anybody’s idea of immigrants.”

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They’re white, privileged males, and they don’t speak with an accent. They’re not anybody’s idea of immigrants.

Cuban-American novelist Cristina Garcia

Rubio’s and Cruz’s ethnicity probably had nothing to do with why Iowans voted for them, said Carlos Eire, a history and religious studies professor at Yale University who has written about the Cuban revolution and exile experience.

“People voted for Cruz and Rubio because of what they were saying and because of what they’ve done rather than identity politics,” said Eire, who “hates” the idea that people choose their political leaders based on race, gender or ethnicity — especially when it comes to the catch-all term “Latinos.”

“Nobody seems to understand that there are 17 different countries in Latin America for good reasons. They’re very different,” he said. (He cited the common cultural misconception that all Hispanics eat spicy food. Cubans, for one, don’t.) “There’s a lot of tensions among the different Hispanic groups in the U.S. For many Cubans, if a Mexican was running for office, they wouldn’t vote just because he’s a Mexican — and vice versa.”

Cuban Americans have had far more political success than Mexican Americans, though there are about 34 million people of Mexican origin in the country (64 percent of all Hispanics), compared to about 2 million of Cuban origin (less than 4 percent).

Despite their small numbers, Cuban Americans boast the only three Hispanics in the U.S. Senate: Cruz, Rubio and New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez. They also claim five House members: Miami Republicans Carlos Curbelo, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen; West Virginia Republican Alex Mooney and New Jersey Democrat Albio Sires.

Their power has appeared to wane recently: The Obama administration didn’t consult any of the Cuban Americans in Congress before reestablishing diplomatic ties with the island last year. Even in Miami-Dade County, the cradle of Cuban exiles, community leaders have been fractured since the death of scion Jorge Mas Canosa nearly two decades ago. Democrats have made steady gains with Cuban voters, to the point that “it’s hard to talk about one Cuban-American community anymore,” said Lisandro Pérez, professor and chairman of Latin American and Latina/o studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who used to teach at Florida International University.

Unlike other Latino groups, the bulk of Cuban immigrants who came to the U.S. in the two decades following Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution came from a prosperous governing and professional class fleeing political persecution, not economic woes, said Roberto Suro, a public policy and journalism professor at the University of Southern California who used to head the Pew Hispanic Center. Cubans were treated as refugees and helped with government assistance to quickly get on their feet.

“It’s different also in terms of their longevity,” Suro said. “A lot of the rest of the Latino population, including even the Mexican population, is the result of a migration drive that gained a lot of momentum in the ’80s and ’90s and that peaked in 2000. The Cuban population — yes, there have been new arrivals over the past 20 years, but the core of that population has been around longer. . . . There’s a maturity to the Cuban presence.”

Rubio’s parents left Cuba before the revolution, seeking economic security. But he was nevertheless helped by the post-Castro exile surge, Suro argued: “He was a bartender’s son, but the structure in the U.S. benefited a lot of people who were not part of the Havana hierarchy,” he said. “You could, if you were ambitious and smart the way this guy is, get ahead.”

“He is the niño bueno,” the good boy, Suro added. “He is the little altar boy with the slick hair who was always eager to learn.”

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The Cuban population — yes, there have been new arrivals over the past 20 years, but the core of that population has been around longer…. There’s a maturity to the Cuban presence.

University of Southern California professor Roberto Suro

South Florida’s political structure also boosted Rubio, said Pérez, the John Jay professor.

“In Miami, you’ve got a multitude of cities . . . which means that you can get elected to city council, you can get elected mayor, basically just out of your neighborhood. West Miami in many ways is not much more than just a neighborhood,” he said, referring to the city where Rubio began his political career. “It would be very different than how you’d have to climb up the political ladder in, say, New York — a much tougher place where it’s one big city” government.

That might explain Rubio’s rise, but not Cruz’s. His father did flee political persecution — from the regime of Castro predecessor Fulgencio Batista — but built his life in Texas, where his son, Rafael Edward, who eventually chose the nickname “Ted” instead of the original “Felito,” did not live surrounded by Cubans.

Their common thread: Cruz’s father and Rubio’s grandfather taught them to abhor the communist revolution.

“Their identity as Cubans is wound up with that whole opposition to the Cuban government, which they’ve learned since they could remember,” Pérez said. “Cruz doesn’t come out of Miami and therefore doesn’t have the upbringing that is culturally Cuban, but I think politically he’s had very much the same values.”

They might have inherited similar politics, but Cruz and Rubio are running vastly dissimilar campaigns. Where Rubio, a 44-year-old born in Miami, talks about growing up in an immigrant family, bringing “unity” to the GOP and expanding the party among independents and minorities, Cruz, a 45-year-old born in Canada, bets that he can win by getting white religious and blue-collar conservatives to the polls — the opposite of what Republican leaders called for after losing the White House in 2012. Both senators were elected with tea-party support — Rubio in 2010 and Cruz in 2012 — but Rubio later backed comprehensive immigration reform, while Cruz has been one of the most strident opponents of illegal immigration.

Both have their New Hampshire fans, including some trying to decide between the two.

Jim Harvey, 51, who attended a Cruz town hall Friday in Salem, said ethnicity isn’t a factor for him — but a Rubio or Cruz nomination could help against Democrats, who usually draw almost all of the Hispanic presidential support.

“I do think that both Marco and Ted, because of their Latino background, will probably help the Republicans gather more votes,” Harvey said.

Left unanswered is what a Cruz-Rubio battle, or a GOP nomination for one of them, would mean to the broader Cuban-American community. Pérez, the John Jay professor, declared himself “disgusted” by the two men’s conservative politics. Garcia, the author, called them “repugnant.” In contrast, Eire, the Yale professor, and Martinez, the former senator, both said they’d be “proud.”

And if Rubio or Cruz reach the pinnacle of American politics, would that mark an end of exile status for Cuban Americans? Would they have finally “made it” in their adopted homeland?

Said Eire: “Exile never goes away.”

Miami Herald Political Writer Patricia Mazzei is in New Hampshire for the primary. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter: @PatriciaMazzei