An Independent Perspective from Havana
By Jose Raul Viera
September 21, 2020
Some reasons that could help to explain the present trend among Cuban American voters in Florida.
1. In 2016 the benefits for the Cuban-American community due to the policy change of President Obama toward Cuba were in full swing. A part of that community, especially the group known generically as "marielitos", those who emigrated to the United States after 1980, felt benefited by the Democratic administration because the legal migratory flow from Cuba had been facilitated uninterruptedly in the last 8 years and much more with the new policy, to which the island's government also contributed, with measures that favored visits from both sides; because the end to the limits of remittances and the increase in tourism to Cuba made small investments attractive especially in houses for renting B & Bs, restaurants, bars, farm improvements and means of transportation; and because the political environment in Miami was less tense and more tolerant.
As is well known, Trump radically changed the situation. Not only did he end travel facilities, reversed the flow of American tourists to Cuba and ended American consular services in Havana, but as important for internal American politics, the environment in the Cuban-American community once again became intolerant and potentially dangerous towards those who placed family contacts above hostility to the Cuban authorities.
At the same time, the Cuban-American Community looked to be very satisfied with their economic possibilities under the Trump administration. Cuban emigrants with whom I have been able to speak over these 4 years, some 15 in total, which were members of my own extensive and diverse family, children of my former co-workers and Cuban-Americans with whom we met in the homes of friends, all, without exception, were happy with the economic possibilities that they attributed to Trump. Although these conversations occurred mainly between 2017 and 2018; still in December 2019 I had the opportunity to talk with three Cuban-Americans who continued to be enthusiastic with the economy. The three said that they had voted for Hillary in 2016 and were inclined to re-elect Trump in 2020.
On the other hand, although the resurgence of the blockade interrupted their family visits - a very annoying aspect of Trump's policies in Miami - the discomfort due to the interruption of small remittances is balanced by the impression that private businesses in Cuba have been subject to excessive regulation and obstacles created by the Havana government.
In summary, the increase in the severity of the blockade under Trump is not enough for Biden to achieve support among Cuban-Americans similar or greater than that provided to Hillary in 2016.
2. The weight of racism in a broad sector among Cuban-Americans should not be underestimated. Slavery ended in Cuba even later than in the United States and the oppression of the population of African origin and the fear of white Cubans that a "Haitian revolution" would take place continued in the Republic. In the first third of the 20th century there were killings and lynching of Afro-descendant Cubans and of the so-called “braceros”, mainly Haitian and Jamaican immigrants who were brought in for the large sugar harvests.
The fear of social protests and Black Lives Matter leads to support for police repression and heavy-handed politics even among white or pretended white Cubans of poor background.
3. Another fundamental question is the policy towards Cuba that the candidates are expressing.
In 2016, Trump's offer was clear, to reverse the agreements reached by Obama. Hillary's was the continuation of the "engagement" policy. The Democratic candidate reached the highest support in the Cuban-American community that a candidate from her party had ever achieved.
Now Trump proposes the continuity of his policy, but without details. He does not say: I will end all family visits to Cuba, I will end remittances etc. What exactly the continuity of its policies means remains undefined although it can be guessed. The important thing is that there are no concrete threats that can worry and scare people in Miami.
For his part, the Democratic candidate also leaves undefined what is the practical meaning of the resumption of Obama's policy. It is not clear how many of the actions taken by Trump a President Biden can or is willing to reverse. In my opinion, it is more likely that the support for Biden within the Cuban-American community will return at least to the level that Hillary had if it were known that this restoration of Obama implies not only resumption of flights from Miami to several Cuban cities and visits by Americans, but also the creation of a legal framework and protection for small family investments in Cuba; that the exports of supplies and equipment to private farmers, entrepreneurs and workers in Cuba would be facilitated; that Cuban citizens residing on the island will be allow to have bank accounts in American banks and the use of American credit cards in Cuba and limited measures of this kind.
Cuban authorities do not help in this sense. They are following the traditional policy of not openly doing anything that can be seen as favoring one American candidate. They do not for example express that if a new president in the USA goes back to more normal relations, probably family and economic relations with the Cuban American Community will also be facilitated from the Cuban side. Actually, some commentaries in the Cuban TV make you think that they are more afraid of the cultural and political influence of a new administration of the Democrats even if it is clear that just the election of Biden will immediately, even before January 20, improve the Cuban position in its financial and economic negotiations with the rest of the world.
4. Finally, it cannot be ignored that the political fear that Trump and the extremist sectors of the Cuban-Americans who follow him arouse in Miami is a very significant factor.
In short, Cuban-Americans have to feel that the economic policy of a Democratic administration will benefit Miami and them specifically, and that the policy alternative towards Cuba offers them something more concrete, again, not only in family relations but also in economic terms.
Jose Raul Viera served as First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs for a decade in the 1990s. He and his wife Maria Cecilia Bermudez meet regularly in Havana with visiting academic and policy delegations from the US and Europe. They are translators to Spanish for publication in Cuba of books by historian Louis Perez of the University of North Carolina.