Be Careful Who You Coddle

Cuban American Vote
Could Be A Poisoned Chalice

By Ana Perez

In their haste to undermine the Cuban government the Bush administration may be sowing the seeds of its own demise in both the Cuban-American community and the greater Latino communities in the next election. It is a lesson that John Kerry and the Democratic party might want to pay attention to, particularly when both parties seem intent on catering to the shrinking 4% of the anti-engagement Cuban-American vote. They ignore the other 96% of the Latino vote and the growing pro-engagement Cuban American constituency at their electoral peril.

The Bush administration toughening on Cuba policy announced the early this May is already backfiring. Many Cuban Americans are coming out opposing the latest changes in travel and remittances regulations. Even the most famous dissidents in Cuba had asked the Bush administration to reconsider. Mr. Bush has been unwilling to listen to the majority of the US citizens and Congress, who have consistently demanded an end the travel ban and to normalize relations with Cuba, perhaps the threat of losing votes in Florida may be more persuasive.

Democratic and Republican politicians have repeatedly sought the support of and promoted a conservative Cuban American political elite in Cuba. In the next few months President Bush will begin his final push to secure the conservative Cuban American vote in Florida. On May 20, Bush made another independence speech where he once again recited the agenda of this small minority. It is likely that Senator Kerry will follow suit with anti-Cuban rhetoric.

The Bush administration has advocated an increasingly tough line against Cuba, tightening travel restrictions for US citizens and limiting Cuban Americans to one family visit a year. But a report submitted by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell, may have gone too far by threatening to halt most travel to the island, including ending the yearly family visits by Cubans.

Such crackdowns are now increasingly coming at the expense of Cuban-American families, who will now only be allowed to reunite once every three years. Cuban Americans are completely enamored of their homeland and those who have traveled to Cuba generally witness at least one dramatic separation between family members. Flights regularly leave Havana late, because of the extended good-byes, all the kissing and crying by Cuban Americans. Cuban Americans are only allowed 44 pounds of luggage and can only spend $50 a day instead of $167. On a recent visit to Cuba, I saw furious Cuban Americans berating Homeland Security officers who had demanded that they count out their money.

So what makes Mr. Bush think that he will be winning votes by stopping family reunifications?

There is more to this issue than the Cuban American community. It has not gone unnoticed by other Latino communities the preferential treatment granted to Cuban Americans.

Unlike other immigrant waves, of poor, uneducated and disenfranchised people from Latin America, the 200,000 Cubans who came to the US in the early 1960s were the members of Cuba's elite. These were the people who could send their children off to Yale University. They took regular trips to Miami and New York to catch up on the latest US fashion.

Thanks to decades of preferential treatment, Cuban-American political elites get away with incredible deals like the Cuban Adjustment Act 1996. This act gives Cubans arriving in the US expedited and unrestricted permanent resident status, as well as access to housing, education and welfare programs. No other immigrant group enjoys such a welcome. Any Cuban (regardless of whether they arrived in the US legally or illegally) qualifies for government programs that get them on their feet. If my Salvadoran family had gotten this kind of support upon our arrival to the US, we too would have a solid middle class, a few elected officials and perhaps even one Bush-appointed cabinet position.

Yet in the rest of Latin America the Bush administration has done nothing to improve living conditions, develop jobs that provide a living wage and to support sustainable and self-sufficient development in Latin America. What he has done is assist in the demise of President Aristide's administration, the democratically elected president of Haiti; attempted to oust Chavez in Venezuela; and held failed Free Trade Area of the America meetings. What does Bush have to show the rest of the Latino vote? He is tough on Cuba?

I am a one of the growing number of Latinos who will vote in the elections. Some 6.7 million Latinos are expected to vote in 2004. In terms of registered voters by country of origin, 70% are Mexican, 8% are Puerto Rican, 14% are from Central America and other Latin-American countries. Only 4% are Cuban. And we are counting on a number of them voting against the current Cuba policy.

A word of advice to Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry: Cuba is not the only country in Latin America and their anti-engagement politics toward Cuba are outdated. We want to hear less about regime change in Cuba and more about national policy shift to increase spending on education, healthcare, and housing, the creation of better jobs and a fair Latin American policy.

Ana Perez, is the Cuba Program Director at Global Exchange. Phone 415-255-7296 or 510-655-8723 or email

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