The return to the origin of exile: understanding the Cuban-American vote

One would expect a Cuban immigrant to be able to recognize a narcissistic autocrat at first sight; one would expect him to be aware of the dangers of making him president, having suffered the repression and exclusion that the deterioration of democratic coexistence causes. One tends to think that the mark of “fidelism” which we all carry would have already raised the alarm long ago. However, last week we found that the majority of Cubans in the state of Florida supported Donald Trump.[1] And this is not the first time this has happened.[2]

The elections are over and, like the rest of the country, Cuban Americans would do well to look for ways to ease the tensions they have experienced over the past four years. Unfortunately, this is not achieved just by wishing it. A good starting point, however, would be to try to understand the specificities and needs of each of the actors in the conflict. Understanding Cuban-American voters means accepting that their political positions are not casual, nor are they based on circumstantial outbursts. On the contrary, they reflect fundamental elements that affect their livelihood as a community.

The Identity of the “Exile” and Donald Trump

According to University of Florida historian Lillian Guerra, at the core of the identity of the so-called “Cuban exile” are two deeply rooted stories that are familiar to all of us. So much so that they already belong to the record of what we might call “common sense” or to the order of what is “known” among Cubans – even those who do not live in Miami.[3]

The first, which we could call the “origin myth”, explains that Cuban immigrants were expelled or escaped from their country as a result of Fidel Castro’s “communist” dictatorship, which took away their property and their rights as citizens. Then, in “exile”, they built a refuge – a provisional one – thanks to the generosity of the United States and ended up turning it into one of the continent’s most prosperous cities, Miami. The second, which in a way stems from the first, explains that due to their conflictive relationship with Castro, their status as victims of the dictatorship, and their gratitude to the host country, Cubans would be particularly qualified to identify and combat the threat of global communism – both in terms of individual freedoms and national security.

The throwback to the political culture of the second half of the 20th century is evident in these two narratives. We will return to this point later, but it is worth noting here how interconnected the identity of the so-called Cuban “exile” and the Cold War are. More than an incidental fact, the separation of the world into two antagonistic sides – communism and capitalism – offered a unique context in which Cuban immigrants were able to display an image of themselves and the world that was ultimately very helpful to them. Given its success, no one should expect it to be easily replaced.

We would not move forward by debating whether these narratives are true or not. Their strength does not depend on epistemological criteria but on the degree of acceptance in the community that reproduces them and their practical adaptation to everyday needs. Even if both were totally illusory – they never are – we should assume Umberto Eco’s well-known phrase according to which semiotics is “the discipline that studies everything that can be used to lie” The most important thing is not to discover whether “the lies” we share and believe in are false, but to understand what role they play in the cohesion of a community and how they condition its political decisions.

In the case of the so-called Cuban “exile” these two stories are fundamental, at least in three ways.

First, through them the Cuban community in the United States defined its specificity as a migratory group. Cubans can be considered “different” because, as the history of their “origin” explains, the cause of the exodus was not economic, but political. And the very name “exiles” by which they have referred to themselves during all this time clarifies this desire for differentiation. As Lillian Guerra writes: “U.S. law has equated Cubans’ decision to leave the island with collective acts of political protest to state oppression, rather than with class interests or the individual will to aspire to a materially comfortable life in the United States. The latter desires apparently only motivate Haitians, Mexicans, and other illegals, but not Cubans.”[4] From this perspective, it is not surprising that Cubans tend not to get offended when Donald Trump despises “other” Latino immigrants.

Second, these two stories provided a background that was both consistent and flexible enough – at the same time – to allow the Cuban community to consolidate and sustain itself over time. It tends to be forgotten that the first immigrants to arrive in Miami were divided between former supporters of the Batista government and “revolutionaries” who became disillusioned or were driven away by Fidel Castro. Until very recently, both groups had been enemies in a war, and without the new common opponent – Castro and communism – the very idea of a Cuban community in the early 1960s would have been unworkable. Also this process was helped by the fact that the Fidel Castro’s regime insisted on denigrating all those who “left”, calling them equally “worms”, “mercenaries” and “stateless”, without acknowledging any major distinctions. As Guerra explains, for the “exile”: “All that divides Cubans today, like all that divided them in the past, both on the island and between the island and Miami, derives from the malevolence of one single man and the complicity of others less powerful and possibly less courageous than they in tolerating him.”[5] Castro has already physically disappeared, but as it would be easy to confirm, the position regarding the so-called “Revolution” continues to be a fundamental element that differentiates Cubans.

Later, these same principles helped the new immigrants to integrate themselves into the community despite their tremendous differences with the first groups. The wave of migration in the 1980s forced the recognition of new things that the Cuban society in the 1950s was not used to, and the migrations that took place from the 1990s onwards brought to the table the question of reconciliation with immigrants who had actively participated in the “Revolution”. But as long as they left Cuba, recognized “Castroism” as a common enemy and accepted the political exceptionality of the exile as their own, it was enough for these new waves to be accepted. Referring to Miami, Professor María de los Ángeles Torres, of the University of Illinois, wrote: “It is a place in wich a Kafkaesque metamorphoses occur daily as persons who were defined as traitors forty minutes airspace prior to the arrival are transformed into heroes”.[6] On the other hand, these same “facilities” for integration have given political status a disproportionate weight when it comes to establishing membership, and consequently, any deviation from the pre-determined values leads to an extreme activation of the mechanism employed by the community for ostracizing dissenters.[7]

Thirdly and finally, these two stories explain the place of Cuban emigration in the more general conflict between communism-capitalism of the Cold War era and, more specifically, its place in the history and the meaning of the United States as a nation.[8] By being recognized as victims of communism and, by extension, as a kind of vanguard of anti-communism, Cubans were able to argue that they played – and will continue to play – a role in safeguarding the essential values of the US nation, especially with regard to national security and the preservation of individual freedoms. At the limit of this logic, it now seems almost “natural” that Cubans would consider themselves better prepared than the Americans themselves to defend the entire country from communism; which, again, has resonated perfectly with Donald Trump’s campaign strategy.

With full knowledge of the facts, earlier this year Trump courted Cuban voters like this: “The courageous veterans here today bear witness to how socialism, radical mobs, and violent communists ruin a nation. Now, the Democratic Party is unleashing socialism right within our own beautiful country. […] Today, we proclaim that America will never be a socialist or communist country. And I’m going to add that word, ‘or communist’. It’s the first time I’ve ever said that. I’ve never added the other word, but I think it’s appropriate.”[9]

As we have said, all this symbolic-narrative machinery worked very well within the cultural context of the Cold War, at least for as long as the “red menace” was the daily bread of political debate. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, as the fears wore off, the ability of the historical “exile” to distinguish itself and fit into the new reality -especially among the younger generation- also grew weaker. At the same time, the new dominant theme that inaugurated the 21st century -the fight against terrorism- was not the most adequate environment to highlight the value of a group that until very recently prided itself on having confronted communism by all possible means, including some very well-known actions, which nobody wants to remember anymore because they would not be “appreciated” now.

Thus, as the 21st century progressed, the decline of the ties that held together the historical “exile” became more and more evident. In 2014, according to the Pew Research Center,[10] less than half of the Cubans registered to vote, 47% exactly, supported the Republican Party, compared to 64% in 2002. In terms of potential newcomers to the community, 56% of the youngest (19-49) supported the Democratic Party and among those who could not vote – mostly newcomers – only a third supported the Republican Party. In another survey of the same year,[11] FIU found that 52% of Cubans opposed the embargo – compared to 13% in 1991 – and 68% favored the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, a figure that reached 80% among newcomers.

Donald Trump had to appear, with his extremist rhetoric and his allegories of McCarthyism, so that the old narratives could find a new-old way to get a new lease on life and, with it, reactivate the old symbolic ties that united the community.

Barack Obama, the Democratic Party and the Next Presidential Term

The two narratives described above are not incidental details of a way of thinking. They are part of the symbolic basis that sustains Miami’s Cuban American community; essential elements that make it what it is. As such, it is necessary to understand their implications.

From the perspective of the “exile”, any mitigation of the conflict between the Cuban and US governments will never be a “simple” change of strategy. On the contrary, it tends to become a “threat”. Not because it contradicts the group’s wishes or jeopardizes its ideas about Cuba’s future, but because it attacks the core of its identity and disrupts the understanding of who the Cubans are in the United States, what is their specificity, and what is their value.

The great rejection that the Barack Obama’s administration provoked has to do precisely with that and with having turned the Cuban “exiles” into the big losers of the opening to the Havana regime. It did not matter, for example, that within Cuba Obama became the only US president with more popularity than Fidel Castro.[12] On the contrary, precisely for this reason, Obama disrupted the distribution of the traditional roles in the political narrative of the “exile”. Suddenly the separation between the Cuban government and the island’s Cubans, on one side, and the Miami Cubans and the US government, on the other, was being questioned.

On top of that, Obama repealed the “dry feet, wet feet” policy, bringing the Cubans even closer to becoming an immigrant group “equal” to the others. It is not surprising then that those closest to the traditional premises have shared a similar obsession with Donald Trump: to undo all the accomplishments of the previous president.

To “normalize” their situation is the last thing a Cuban émigré would want – no matter if he lives in Miami or anywhere else in the world. It goes against one of the most important aspirations of any immigrant community, the recognition of their uniqueness by the host country. While many of us might agree, what would we get in exchange? Residents in Cuba immediately saw the potential advantages of the “thaw” and even more so those already linked to the “private sector”. But Obama – intentionally or out of ignorance – not only left the “Cubans living abroad” out of the equation, he also did not offer them any benefits that would work as a counterweight.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry recently acknowledged that the rapprochement with Cuba could have been handled better.[13] He was referring to the Cuban government’s lack of reciprocity on issues of political openness and respect for human rights. In another sense, it seems to me that the error of the opening during the Obama administration was not so much in having given too many concessions to the government of Havana and having obtained few benefits in these matters in exchange, as has been said; but in ignoring the Cuban emigration – including the historical “exile” – almost completely as an actor in this pact. As a consequence, then came the elections of 2016 and 2020, and the State of Florida, which in 2014 seemed to be getting closer to the Democratic Party, has again moved away from it.

President-elect Joe Biden said in Miami on October 5 that he considered Cuban Americans “the best ambassadors of freedom in Cuba”.[14] However, his position regarding the island is still too ambiguous. It remains to be seen what concrete plans the new president has and whether he is truly committed to a solid ecumenical alternative. If so, now that the election is over, we Cubans of all affiliations would do well to take him at his word and try to build a new platform that could encompass us all.

On the one hand, the historical “exile” – and its newly discovered members – should not confuse the circumstances experienced in recent years with a return to a certain splendor. The Cold War ended thirty years ago and the “socialist” threat with which Trump adorned his campaign is no more than a rhetorical fabrication with no guarantee of surviving it. In addition, younger Cubans have very different political interests than the traditionally ascribed to this community, and most have enough skills to continue to break away from their origins and integrate – individually – into cultural environments that were out of reach to their predecessors.

On the other hand, Cuban émigrés who have never felt close to historical “exile” or who have lost their connection to it should also seek to improve their position. Although it has lost strength, the Cuban community in South Florida still retains significant political influence, especially with regard to the positions of future Republican governments. No change in the policy toward the Havana regime will work if it is not sustained over time. A time that needs to be surely longer than the four years of a presidential term. It does not seem a good idea to alienate again one of the most influential actors in Florida, precisely when any initiative will have to be endorsed in a new electoral cycle.

If none of this works, at least we should consider one purely practical reason. The Democrats control federal policy; the Republicans managed to keep Florida and won two Cuban-American seats in Congress. If the recent elections proved anything, it’s that neither side is strong enough to win without the other’s support. Both, it seems, want the same thing: a democratic openness in Cuba.


Notes:

[1] Carmen Sesin: “Trump Cultivated the Latino Vote in Florida, and It Paid Off”, NBC News, November 4, 2020.

[2]Pew Research Center: Mayoría de electores cubanos en Florida votó por Trump”, Radio Televisión Martí, November 16, 2016.

[3] Lillian Guerra: “Elián González and the «Real Cuba» of Miami: Visions of Identity, Exceptionality, and Divinity”Cuban Studies, n. 38, 2017, pp. 1-25.

[4] Lillian Guerra: op. cit., p. 13.

[5] Lillian Guerra: op. cit., p. 9.

[6] Ruth Behar (ed.): Bridges to Cuba/Puentes a Cuba, University of Michigan Press, 2015, p. 40.

[7] Cfr. “Retiran las llaves de Miami a Gente de Zona”, La Vanguardia, 27 de octubre, 2017; “Alcalde de Miami declara persona non grata al cantante cubano Paulito FG”, CiberCuba, 15 de octubre, 2020; “Vigilia Mambisa destruye turrones y vierte vinos frente a la embajada de España en Miami”, CiberCuba, 28 de noviembre, 2019.

[8] Lillian Guerra: op. cit., p. 11.

[9] Donald Trump: “Remarks by President Trump Honoring Bay of Pigs Veterans”, Whitehouse, September 23, 2020.

[10] Cfr. Jens M. Krogstad: “After decades of GOP support, Cubans shifting toward the Democratic Party”, Pew Research Center, June 24, 2014; Jens M. Krogstad y Marc H. Lopez: “As Cuban American demographics change, so do views of Cuba”, Pew Research Center, December 23, 2014.

[11] FIU Cuban Research Institute: 2014 FIU Cuba Poll, FIU, 2014.

[12] Kendall Breitman: “Obama more popular than the Castro brothers in Cuba”, Politico, April 8, 2015.

[13] Andres Oppenheimer: “Biden needs to fine-tune his message on Cuba the way John Kerry has”, Miami Herald, September 9, 2020.

[14]Joe Biden Miami Campaign Speech Transcript”, Rev, October 5, 2020.

Yanko Moyano
Yanko Moyano
Yanko Moyano. PhD in Philosophy from the University of Barcelona, specialized in topics related to the understanding of the present and the challenges of contemporary culture and politics. He has coordinated two books, published several articles in magazines and given courses and conferences in cultural and educational institutions in Cuba, Chile, Spain and the United States.

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