Commentary: Many GOP candidates have stumbled over Cuba in South Florida

Don’t worry Herman. When it comes to this Cuban immigration stuff, we’re all befuddled.

Campaigning in Little Havana last Wednesday, Herman Cain was confronted with a truly bewildering foreign policy question. Not like the one about Libya that stumped him last week. Not like trying to recall what’s-his-name from Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan.

This time, Cain was flustered by a perplexity peculiar to campaigning in Miami. You could almost see the neurotransmitters firing blanks as Cain walked along, a gaggle of reporters in tow, wondering what the hell the aqueous state of someone’s tootsies had to do with foreign policy.

The answer is everything, at least in Miami. Poor Cain was making a campaign swing through South Florida, including that mandatory photo-op at Versailles, a Cuban food emporium favored by visiting politicians, perhaps because the famous decor allows a candidate to simultaneous sip café con leche and mingle with fervent ethnic voters while admiring his own inspiring image on the restaurant’s mirrored walls.

But in Little Havana what was supposed to be Cain’s great asset — his vaunted, no-nonsense, pizza magnate approach to government — collided with the strange and inscrutable contradictions that flourish down here in the subtropics. Like giant African snails or Burmese pythons or Hialeah elections.

Synapses misfired. He could only answer The Herald’s Marc Caputo’s query with a quizzical rephrasing of the question: “The wet-foot, dry-foot policy?”

Cain seemed to be flipping through his mental card catalogue, desperately searching for a logical explanation to this wet-foot, dry-foot craziness. But he drew a blank. Because, well, no logical explanation exists.

Didn’t make much sense in 1995, either, when wet-foot, dry-foot was created to discourage a nonstop influx of Cuban rafters, navigating the Florida Straits in a makeshift rafts most of us wouldn’t trust to float across the Miami River.

Not willing to completely discard a special (and politically sacred) just-for-Cubans instant asylum immigration policy, the Clinton administration came up with an bizarre and arbitrary compromise. Cuban refugees interdicted at sea were to be hauled back to Cuba. Cubans refugees who managed to set their feet on the dry land could stay. The maddening exactness of the policy especially roiled the community back in 1999, when newly arrived refugees landing in Surfside and Key Largo were caught wading ashore in shin-deep water and were sent back, while others on the same boat who made it to dry land were granted asylum. Amid the uproar, Howard Simon of the ACLU asked the questions that can still cause a politician’s head to burst in flames. "What happens at low tide and high tide? Does the constitution vary? This is absurd."

Of course, undocumented immigrants from other nationalities caught sailing out of the Caribbean go home, dry feet or not. Wet-foot, dry-foot was invented just for Cuban refugees. And just for Miami politics. It’s as if Boston could conjure up a special exception for undocumented Irish immigrants, allowing them to stay as long as they chugged a pint of Guinness without sloshing: wet-chin, dry-chin. It certainly makes no more sense, outside Miami, than, say, Cuban travel restrictions for non-Cuban Americans, or a Cuban trade embargo that bars all trade except for the half-billion dollars-a-year in bound-for-Cuba items that just happened to be exempt from the embargo. And if Cain thought the questions out of Little Havana were tough to answer, he should try to explain the vagaries of the Cuban Adjustment Act to voters across town in Little Haiti.

Perhaps Cain, before coming to Miami, ought to have taken a few moments to prep himself on the local political weirdness. It’s just not something an uninformed outsider can finesse. This ain’t Des Moines. (Not that Iowa’s beloved ethanol policy comes with a rational explanation.) Still, flubbing on wet-foot, dry-foot shouldn’t count as a major political faux pas, another of Herman’s Cain’s Rick Perry moments. (Not like Cain saying, 47 years after China built a nuclear bomb, that he was worried China would “develop nuclear capability.”)

Other candidates have similarly struggled with the inscrutable intricacies of Miami politics. Four years ago, Mitt Romney, during his own visit to Versailles and vicinity, tried a bit of innocent pandering. “Hugo Chávez has tried to steal an inspiring phrase — Patria o muerte, venceremos,” Romney said. “It does not belong to him. It belongs to a free Cuba.”

Not quite a free Cuba. Mitt had employed a favorite catch phrase from commie Fidel himself. Turned out, Hugo had filched the words from Castro, who liked to end his speeches with: “Fatherland or death, we shall overcome.”

Romney had figured to score easy political points with the exile community. Instead his campaign was forced to issued an apology: “It was an unfortunate error in the language that certainly wasn’t meant to offend.”

Poor unwitting Mitt (who praised a rising young local Republican politician he called "Mario Rubio,”) also employed what he must have supposed was a Cuban-American exile rallying cry: “ Libertad, libertad, libertad!” Except in Miami, that particular phrase is associated with dialogue uttered by Al Pacino in Scarface, the 1983 movie despised by exiles for an insensitive depiction of Miami as a nest of homicidal Mariel immigrant gangsters. The script goes like this: “I’d kill a communist for fun . . . but for a green card, I gonna carve him up real nice . . . Libertad! Libertad! Libertad!”

Cain, finally figuring out that nothing in Miami makes much sense to an unschooled outsider, declined to entertain any more media queries about Cuban foreign policy. No more “gotcha” questions, he declared. All questions hereabouts, he was coming to realize, have a gotcha potential.

Later, on the campaign bus, Cain finally told Channel 10’s Michael Putney that he was opposed to wet-foot, dry-foot; that there must be “a better way.” Wisely, he didn’t elaborate. Because even the most innocuous intent can get you whacked in Miami. At the Versailles, the pizza man dutifully consumed his obligatory cafecito and croquetas and inquired, “How do you say ‘delicious’ in Cuban?”

Any politician chumming for votes in Little Havana soon learns that whatever he says “in Cuban,” as opposed to saying it in Spanish, must be said very carefully.

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