Trump defies demographics by courting Cuba hardliners in Florida

Jordan Fabian, Stephen Wicary and Ben Bartenstein

President Donald Trump’s clampdown on Cuba’s Communist government is part of an election-year strategy to keep Cuban-American voters in Florida in his column – but it could backfire in the must-win state.

In recent weeks the administration has issued new sanctions and ordered Marriott International Inc. to stop operations there. Those actions are part of a policy that comes from the typical playbook for a Republican president facing re-election: make an appeal to influential Cuban-Americans in South Florida who have supported the GOP for decades over their shared disdain for the island’s leaders.

Women wearing masks to curb the spread of the new coronavirus chat on a corner in Old Havana, one using a piece of styrofoam to shade herself, in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, June 23, 2020.

But the older anti-Communist Cuban-Americans are dying off and a more moderate generation is taking their place, so the moves could seem out of step. Younger Cuban-Americans were excited by the short-lived detente achieved by President Barack Obama – and Vice President Joe Biden, now Trump’s 2020 opponent.

Understanding the changes in the Florida electorate could make a difference in a closely contested race. Trump will find it difficult to get the 270 Electoral College votes he needs to win the White House without Florida’s 29.

Trump trails Biden in Florida by more than 6 percentage points, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. A Fox News poll released Thursday showed Biden leading Trump 49% to 40% among Florida registered voters.

In April, Biden said he would “in large part” restore the previous administration’s policies toward Cuba, which Trump rolled back during his first year in office.

Biden’s pledge “caught the White House’s attention as an opportunity to demonstrate the differences in what would be the approach,” said Jose Cardenas, who worked on Latin America issues in the George W. Bush administration.

Trump won 35% of the Latino vote in Florida in 2016, according to exit polls, and was boosted by 54% support among Cuban-Americans in the state – numbers he will likely need to duplicate again to win.

The Malecon waterfront is devoid of people during a lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, June 18, 2020.

Waning influence

The cohort of voters that fiercely opposed the Fidel Castro-led revolution has seen its influence wane in recent years, giving way to a younger generation of Cuban-Americans that is generally less partisan and more interested in re-establishing the relationship between the two countries.

Miami-area Cuban Americans continue to be predominately Republican. A Florida International University poll in 2018 found a nearly 3-to-1 party registration advantage over Democrats.

But younger and second-generation Cuban Americans tend to be more independent. Of Cubans who migrated to Miami before 1980, 72% say they’re Republican and only 35% of those younger than 40 say they are. Only 23% of those younger Cuban-Americans identify as Democrats, and 40% are independents.

Guillermo Grenier, chairman of the department of global and sociocultural studies at Florida International University also said newer arrivals are less strident in their opposition to Cuba. Grenier said there are clear divisions between those who fled the island in the years following the revolution and their children, who were mostly born in the U.S., as well as Cubans who arrived in the U.S. after 1995. While political engagement is higher among the older generation, the younger one is growing in number and clout.

“Anything that will squeeze the Cuban people’s ability to have a better outcome than they’re having right now is going to backfire among the most recent arrivals,” said Grenier, who co-directs the university’s Cuba poll. “I think you have a good chance of the new arrivals being the key voting bloc this time around.”

Fewer Cubans among Florida voters

While Trump has made gestures toward Cubans, their historic prominence among Florida’s Latino electorate is shrinking. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans, who generally lean toward Democrats, fled to Florida after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017, adding to an already burgeoning community in Central Florida.

The number of island-born Puerto Ricans who are eligible to vote in Florida jumped 30% between 2016 and 2018, according to the Pew Research Center. Cuban-Americans made up 46% of Latino eligible voters in Florida in 1990, compared with 31% in 2018.

Migrants from Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil have also transformed the state’s electorate. Trump’s hardline approach to both Cuba and Venezuela delivers the same electoral message: wooing voters at home by framing his Latin America policy as a crackdown on socialism.

“The population in Miami, there are Cubans for Trump, but they’re not going to carry the day in the state of Florida,” said Grenier. “That division within the Cuban vote, plus the other Latinos who have come into the state, makes the Cuban vote just not as powerful a voting bloc.”

Economic moves

Nevertheless, Trump is tightening the grip on Cuba. The U.S. recently ordered Marriott to close its operations in Cuba and imposed sanctions on a military-owned financial institution that handles remittances, which could make it harder for Cuban-Americans to use Western Union Co. to send money back to the island.

Like the vast majority of Cuban businesses, the Marriott-run Four Points Sheraton in Havana is controlled by the commercial branch of the Cuban military, which is led by former Cuban leader Ral Castro’s son-in-law. Marriott’s license was granted by the Obama administration in 2015 but was up for renewal.

The Marriott order won’t do much to advance the cause of democracy, according to Ricardo Herrero, executive director of the pro-engagement Cuba Study Group in Washington.

“Cuban workers that were trained by Americans are going to lose their jobs – temporarily, because they’ll just likely be absorbed by foreign firms that are operating other hotels on the island and now get to benefit from U.S.-trained employees,” he said.

By pulling Marriott’s license and curbing remittances, the administration is choking off key sources of foreign currency for Havana. With oil shipments from Venezuela sharply reduced amid its political crisis and economic collapse, and with the pandemic bringing tourism to a halt in the Caribbean, Cuba is now relying on its medical missions abroad to help pay for essentials.

In another move, the Trump administration last week made the surprise decision to nominate the head of Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council, Mauricio Claver-Carone, to lead the Inter-American Development Bank. Claver-Carone is a staunch critic of the Cuban government.

The November election is helping accelerate the announcement of Cuba moves, but the policy itself is consistent with his positions from early in Trump’s administration, a person familiar with the matter said. Trump announced in Miami in June 2017 that that he would tighten the U.S. embargo on Cuba and pull back from Obama’s detente.

The Trump administration has been clear that the U.S. will stop deals that benefit the Cuban military and security services, who it says repress the Cuban people, subvert democracy in Venezuela and foster instability in the region, a senior administration official said.

Trump has also considered going further in squeezing the Cuban government, such as returning the country to the list of state sponsors of terror, according to the person familiar with the matter.

Outside advisers have recommended that the administration hit Cuba’s tourism industry harder by requiring foreigners who travel there to obtain a visa before entering the U.S., according to a document obtained by Bloomberg News. Other recommendations include slapping travel restrictions on Cuban diplomats in the U.S., sanctioning companies that invest in Cuban infrastructure and making it harder for Cuba to send doctors abroad.