WASHINGTON, Nov 10 (IPS) - While political and media attention remains focused on the unprecedented support President Barack Obama received in Tuesday's election from Latinos, one particular subset of those voters - one with potential foreign policy clout - is drawing intense interest.
Cuban Americans, for the last 50 years one of the most reliable constituencies for Republicans, particularly in the perennial "swing state" of Florida where most of them live, voted for the Democratic candidate in unprecedented numbers.
According to exit polls conducted by both Fox News and the Pew Hispanic Center, Obama beat Romney by a 49-47 percent margin among Cuban-American voters in what one close observer of Florida politics called a "historic demographic upset".
A couple of other polls, including one conducted by the highly respected Miami-based Bendixen-Amandi International polling firm, found Romney prevailing over Obama among Cuban Americans, but only by a mere 52-48 percent margin.
"I think it has made clear that the Cuban-American community is no longer as monolithically Republican as many interested parties would like them to think," Fernand Amandi, the firm's managing partner, told IPS Friday.
"What it means is that this administration will have more room to maneouvre on Cuba policy than they ever thought they had," said Geoffrey Thale, a Cuba specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
"U.S. policy for decades has been determined far more by political considerations about the vote in Florida than foreign policy considerations, particularly toward Latin America which has called consistently for an end to the U.S. embargo," Thale told IPS. "So having more room in Florida means they have more flexibility in their policy if they choose to use it."
Like others, Thale stressed that Obama was unlikely to take major new steps to warm relations, particularly so long as Alan Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development contractor arrested in 2009 and sentenced to a 15-year prison term for crimes against the state, remains in jail.
But a greater opening toward Havana, including broadening current bilateral discussions and further relaxing curbs on travel to Cuba, could be in the offing.
While Florida remains the one state in the country whose electoral votes have not yet been cast due to the continuing counting of ballots there, virtually all political analysts say they believe it will end up in Obama's column. He is currently leading the state by one percent, or about 50,000 votes.
If, as expected, he prevails, it will be largely due to the higher-than-anticipated Latino turnout which Obama won by a 60-39 percent margin, according to most exit polls. That margin was considerably less than the 71-27 percent spread in Obama's favour for all U.S. Latino voters, who made up a record 10 percent of the nationwide electorate this year and almost twice much in Florida.
The largest group of Latin voters in Florida are of Cuban heritage – about one-third of all Latinos in the state – a clear explanation for why Obama did not score as well with Latinos there as in every other state in the country.
Still, the results in Florida stunned most observers who interpreted them as a confirmation of a generational shift in Cuban-American political attitudes.
"This is a generational phenomenon," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD), a Washington think tank. "It reflects the passing of the old generation and the acceptance of new attitudes."
"Young Cuban Americans are more open about dealing with Cuba and also have other issues that are important to them that Obama was able to capitalise on," he told IPS, adding, however, that so long as Gross remains in prison, Obama is unlikely to do much more than he has already in terms of rolling back many of the restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba that were imposed during the George W. Bush administration.
While the Pew and Fox News polls showed Obama winning the Cuban-American vote, the Bendixen survey was more detailed and confirmed the generational divide. Cuban-born voters, it found, favoured Romney by 55 percent to 45 percent, but Cuban-American voters born in the U.S. voted for Obama by a 60-40 margin.
"The Cuban-American community is changing," said Wayne Smith, a former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana who resigned to protest Ronald Reagan's hard-line policies and has been working for three decades to promote educational and scientific exchanges between the two countries.
"The younger the community and the newer the immigrants, the more difficult it is for the old hard-liners to control," Smith, who is based at the Center for International Policy, told IPS.
Indeed, as recently as 1988, 85 percent of Cuban Americans in Florida voted for the Republican presidential candidate – George H.W. Bush in that year.
Until now, the high-water mark for a Democrat was Bill Clinton, who won 35 percent of the Cuban-American vote in 1996 and subsequently moved to ease rules governing travel and remittances to Cuba. He also punched a big hole in the trade embargo by permitting agricultural exports to the island for the first time.
In 2000, however, Vice President Al Gore won only 25 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Florida, compared to George W. Bush's 75 percent. Eight years later, Obama equaled Clinton's performance, as the generational shift appeared to take firmer hold.
But this year's Democratic tally of 48-49 percent far exceeded expectations.
While anti-Castro hardliners in the House of Representatives, most prominently Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz Balart, held their seats on Tuesday, Joe Garcia soundly defeated another hard-line incumbent, Rep. David Rivera, to become the first Cuban-American Democrat who explicitly favours better ties with Havana in Congress.
Another hard-line incumbent whose district includes the "Little Havana" section of Miami also fell to a pro-engagement Cuban-American Democrat in the state legislature.
Requests for comment by Ros-Lehtinen's office and the anti-Castro lobby group, Vision Americas, went unanswered.
If Gross is returned to the U.S. – a major if given Havana's insistence to date that he be exchanged for four Cubans still imprisoned here on controversial espionage charges, following the three-year probation of one in October 2011 – Obama is still likely to act cautiously, according to both Thale and Shifter.
Not only is Cuba not seen by the administration as a high foreign policy priority compared to the Middle East or Asia, but also because of the ability of anti-Castro hard-liners in the Senate, especially New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez (who could become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee if John Kerry becomes secretary of state), Florida Republican Marco Rubio, and newly elected Texas Republican Ted Cruz, to hold up unrelated ambassadorial appointments and use other procedural manoeuvres to frustrate Obama's policies.
Still, the fact that Latin American countries have become increasingly insistent that Washington's embargo constitutes a major impediment to improved hemispheric ties – Cuba will chair the two-year-old Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) next year – will likely affect Obama's calculus.
Cuba's key mediating role to end the four-decade-old civil war in Colombia, on which Washington has spent some eight billion dollars over the past decade, could also provide an external push toward normalisation, according to Thale.
"There's more pull from the region and there's less resistance for improving ties," he said.
*Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.
© Inter Press Service (2012) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service
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