Not their fathers' Cuban-American politics

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Jorge Mas Santos stands in an elegant Coral Gables living room espousing what, until very recently, was heresy here - moderation toward Cuba.

"We do not need the 101st Airborne in Havana," Mr. Mas tells a group of the best and brightest young Cuban-Americans who've gathered for drinks and crudités. "We have to change the debate, talk about the violations of human rights, the need for elections, the enslaving of the Cuban people. That's what we need to show the world, that's a compelling argument that cannot be debated."

With Cuban-American relations more strained than at any time since the missile crisis 40 years ago, Mr. Mas Santos's words are particularly salient. But what makes them still more striking - and revealing - is that Mas Santos's father was Jorge Mas Canosa, powerful founder of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), which over the last 20 years has shaped the hard-line US policy toward Cuba as well as more than one presidential election in Florida.

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Now, as the Bush administration prepares its response to Fidel Castro's recent crackdown on dissidents and emigrants, it's confronted by a new dilemma: Cuban-Americans, a key political constituency, are split between the traditional hard-liners and a new generation of moderates like Mas Santos, who has taken over the chairmanship of the CANF. The old guard is lobbying to have the US cut off the funds - more than a billion dollars annually - that Cuban-Americans send to their families on the Caribbean island, and to ban all travel there.

The moderates, made up of younger Cuban-Americans and newer migrants from the island, object to both those aims, and would prefer the administration to champion human rights and free speech - and indict Castro as a war criminal.

More complex politics

To come up with a policy that satisfies both sides, says Sergio Bendixen, a Florida pollster and political analyst, "is not going to be easy."

For a generation, presidential contenders have come to Miami to court the powerful Cuban-American lobby here in Little Havana. Their goal: to win the blessings of the senior Mas Canosa, who often met with them at the Versailles Restaurant on 8th Street, where the staples are beans and rice and fried plantains, and the politics were fairly simple. Pledge a crackdown on Castro, and Mas Canosa could deliver 85 to 90 percent of the crucial Cuban-American vote - and potentially swing Florida in your favor.

But even before he died in 1997, Mas Canosa had grown more moderate, in part because of the hard-line policy's failure to bring on Castro's downfall, and in part because the demographics of Miami's Cuban-American community were already changing.

It's estimated that as many as 20,000 Cubans migrate to the US each year. Unlike those who came in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s - who were fleeing political persecution - many of the newer arrivals are economic refugees. And most, like Sulima Reyes, end up in Miami. She works selling items wholesale to the "dollar stores" around Little Havana.

She arrived six and a half years ago, leaving her father and sisters back home, and now, when she can, she sends them money for medicine and food. While she's no fan of Castro, she wants to maintain that contact with her family, and keep the option to visit.

"I don't know about politics," she says, a clipboard in hand and cellphone wire dangling from her ear. "I'm here to work."

How perspectives change

A recent poll by Mr. Bendixen for a group of businessmen called the Cuba Study Group found that more than 50 percent of Miami's Cuban-American population comprises these newer, more moderate migrants. That's been key in changing the community's political tenor.

And then, in 2000, there was Elian Gonzalez, the little boy who survived the trip from Cuba to Florida, though his mother perished in the ordeal. The furor raised by the Cuban-American community when the US sent the little boy back to his father in Cuba alienated many in the US, including key political allies in Washington.

"It was an embarrassment to all of us," says Joe Garcia, CANF executive director. "It was a collective archetypal event that we all reacted to through emotion and not with the cold calculation that politics requires."

Mr. Garcia doesn't judge the community, noting that many identified deeply with Elian's plight. But Garcia does consider the event a lynchpin in the transformation of the Cuban-American community's mind-set, a prompt for soul searching and a political spur to younger Cuban-Americans.

"It's the responsibility of our generation to continue the battle and struggle that our parents and grandparents led," says Fred Balsera, a political consultant and trustee of the CANF whose father was one of the founders. "But obviously, being American born and raised, and not having the direct scars that an exile has, our perspective is different."

But these demographic and attitudinal shifts have taken a toll on Cuban-American unity. Two years ago, a group that held to the traditional line broke off from the CANF and created the Cuban Liberty Council (CLC) It continues to oppose dialogue with Cuba and advocates cutting off remittances and banning travel.

"The weakest link in Castro's column is the economy," says Luis Zúñiga, executive director of the CLC. "If you cut it off, it collapses."

Mr. Zúñiga believes the original foundation has "lost direction" and the new leaders' underlying goals are economic. Garcia dismisses that notion and counters that the hard line has not worked for the past 40 years, so it's time for an alternative.

The larger political impact is unclear. While polls show the community split, the traditional conservatives vote in far larger numbers than the newer migrants and younger Cuban-Americans. That disparity could be a critical factor when Washington weighs its response to the Cuban crackdown.

Many analysts, like William Leogrande at American University, doubt the administration will cut off remittances. But others also doubt this administration will expand commercial, economic, and political ties to the country as President Nixon did in opening up relations with Communist China.

"Those who surmise that President Bush is likely to emulate President Nixon on China have the courage of their ignorance," says John Kavulich, president of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a nonpartisan business group. "It's not likely the administration will risk what they know to be a certain voting block for an unknown."

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