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Miami's Cuban Exiles: The Widening Chasm Between The Leadership And Newer Arrivals

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Passengers wait in the ABC Charters line to check into their American Eagle flight to Holguin, Cuba at Miami International Airport. | Getty Images

Mitt Romney appeared amid crates of tropical guava paste and coconut water at Conchita Foods, a Florida family-run business founded by Cuban exiles -- a rite of passage for aspiring GOP presidential candidates.

Established near Hialeah, a city just west of Miami and heart of the Cuban diaspora, Conchita is owned by the Ferro family, who fled to the United States in the early 1960s after Fidel Castro's revolutionary government seized the food cannery the Ferros had built in Pinar del Rio, Cuba. The Cuban plant, constructed in 1937, was modernized with U.S. government assistance during World War II.

It was a retro campaign moment Tuesday that once might have resonated more with Miami's 850,000 Cuban Americans. But many newcomers arrived after the 1990s, a younger generation with close ties to family and friends back home in Cuba and little concern for the political feuds of yesterday. Romney's Miami appearance illustrated a widening chasm in its rapidly-changing exile community.

To this day, the Cuban state operates the factory that once belonged to the Ferros, selling Conchita brand canned fruits and juices with "our same logo," according to the company website.

"Fidel Castro monstrously took over the country and took over the company," Romney said as he received the much-coveted endorsement of three influential South Florida Republicans: Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, as well as his brother and former congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

Ros-Lehtinen said they were the "Three Amigos," another dated reference, this one to the 1986 comedy film. But the powerful anti-Castro trio could be the Holy Trinity of Cuban American politics, their political blessing once virtually assuring electoral victory in the important state. No longer.

Ann Louise Bardach, an author and Cuba expert, said the Cuban American political leadership is woefully out of touch. Newer arrivals, she said, overwhelmingly favor strengthening bonds with Communist Cuba. Bardach was part of a Brookings Institution panel that two years ago recommended "critical and constructive engagement" with the island.

"There's a big disconnect between what's on the ground and what's in the political arena, more so than ever," said Bardach, author of "Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana, and Washington."

"It used to be they walked in lockstep and harmony," she added. "Now the overwhelming majority of the exile community really has shifted to engagement in a profound way. The demographics are against the hardliners but they retain the seats of power."

But Carlos Alzugaray, a professor of Cuban foreign policy and international relations at the University of Havana, said the long reign of Miami's Castro-hating hardliners could be numbered.

"There is a sociological change in the composition of the Cuban American population in Miami, which has not had an immediate impact in the political configuration of South Florida," said Alzugaray, a visiting professor at Queens College in New York. "But that is bound to happen sooner or later."

"The newer arrivals and some of the second generation Cuban Americans do not have the attitudes so common among the older arrivals, which was basically a revenge culture," he continued. "They have more connections with their families and friends in Cuba. They visit more often."

Still, there is no denying the influence of South Florida's Cuban American elected officials. Ros-Lehtinen, the most senior Republican woman in the House, chairs the Foreign Relations Committee. Ros-Lehtinen and the Diaz-Balart brothers will join Romney's campaign as foreign policy advisers and members of his Latin American Working Group.

The anti-Castro narrative has been so important to the old-time exiles that another Cuban American elected official, Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio, has been accused of embellishing his family history to conform to it. Many consider Rubio a likely GOP vice presidential candidate.

The Washington Post reported in October that Rubio's parents had legally emigrated from Cuba not when Castro seized power in 1959 but some two-and-a-half years earlier. The story was less dramatic than earlier versions in his Senate biography, or his often-used self-description as the "son of exiles." Rubio, who has called the discrepancy a simple mistake, declined to be interviewed for this article.

A spokesman for Ros-Lehtinen, Alex Cruz, said, "Those that believe in this so called 'disconnect' should revisit the results of the 2010 Congressional elections in South Florida," which were resoundingly taken by the GOP candidates. Mario Diaz-Balart could not be reached for comment.

The economic embargo imposed by the United States against Cuba in 1960 remains firmly in place, but newer exiles, aided in part by the Obama administration's 2009 decision to loosen travel and shipping restrictions, are forging contacts with their homeland -- a profound change.

"We have never seen such a divergence," Bardach said of the widening gap between the political establishment's message and the on-the-ground reality. "That is a historical issue where your polling is at odds with the representation. Only in Miami, only on a Cuban issue."

Cubans are not only traveling back home in record numbers but are also sending remittances along with shipments of food, medicines and even electronic appliances via online companies such as HavanaMart.com and MallHabana.com.

"When you go to the airport and take one of these flights to Cuba, you realize the median age is no longer in their 60s or 70s," said Joe Garcia, a former chairman of the Miami Democratic Party. "These are people just trying to have a rational relationship with family in Cuba, understanding that 50 years of failure on Cuban policy is not their fault. They're not going to make themselves or their families martyrs for the point of view of someone else."

Miami has changed in other ways. Popular Cuban musicians once greeted with bomb threats and boisterous demonstrations now pack venues in the city. After the concerts, the artists gather at the homes of relatives and old friends in South Florida. A decade ago, many of the musicians would defect. Now most return to Cuba.

"I remember one particular concert by Manolin El Medico de la Salsa in Miami Beach where a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the venue," said Hugo Cancio, chief executive of Fuego Entertainment, a Miami firm that arranges many of the concerts. "We went ahead with the concert that evening. We used to have all kinds of threats and political pressure. Our dollars were not good for ads on radio or television or even the local papers."

Cancio was born in Cuba and came to Miami during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, in which more than 100,000 Cubans arrived at U.S. shores. He was 16. In his more than three decades as an exile, he said, much has changed.

"It's not even close to where it was before," Cancio said. "This community has matured. I attribute that to the massive amount of Cubans that have arrived in the past 10,15 years. Although they may disagree on whether they left Cuba for economic reasons or to walk away from the government, they see the government as a separate issue from their families, their music, their culture."

Ninoska Perez-Castellon, the Miami radio personality long-considered the voice of anti-Castro exiles in South Florida, was dismissive of what others are calling a sea of change sweeping the Cuban American community. The record number of travelers to the island, she said, doesn't take into account Cuban Americans who go back three, four times a year. As for the Miami concerts by musicians from the island, she said, "It's not like it's a full house or whatever."

"Of course, there has been change," she said. "There's a new generation that maybe are not as concerned or as vocal although they are concerned."

The proof, Perez-Castellon said, is in the ballot box.

"They're still voting for candidates that support sanctions," she said of the exiles. "In the end, the result is still there: those candidates that support sanctioning the regime are the ones getting the vote."

Still, Cancio said the transformation of Miami's political landscape is rapid, and inevitable.

"My fiancee arrived from Cuba six years ago and just became an American citizen," he said. "Now she's able to vote and express her frustration with the Cuban American members of congress who continue to put pressure on our families. She's able to do here what she wasn't able to do in Cuba with the power of her vote."

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