Newt Gingrich And GOP Candidates Court Florida's Latinos, Gingrich Wants 'To Create A Cuban Spring'

01/14/2012 12:07 pm ET | Updated Jan 14, 2012
  • Carlos Harrison Award-winning journalist and writer, author of The Ghosts of Hero Street

Republican candidates are swinging through Florida, dusting off the trusty ol' "Viva Cuba libre!" -- it must be election time again.

Friday, it was Newt Gingrich's turn. He came through Miami looking for handouts and votes. That meant an obligatory stop at the Versailles restaurant in Little Havana for a cafecito -- or, in Gingrich's case, two -- and a climb back on that stale old bandwagon. At least he updated his message to say, as the Miami Herald reported, "My goal as president will be to create a Cuban Spring that is even more exciting than the Arab Spring."

Been there, heard that, said former Florida Democratic Party chairman Joe Garcia, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Congress in 2010 against Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.).

"What it is is, the endless pandering," Garcia told The Huffington Post. "They all do this. And then they go away, never to be heard from again."

Lionel Sosa, Hispanic media consultant for seven Republican presidential campaigns, including Ronald Reagan's -- and now doing the same for former House Speaker Gingrich (R-Ga.) -- bristled at the suggestion.

"I think the Cubans who are left in Cuba are yearning for that freedom that people all over the world are yearning for," Sosa said. "That's a brand-new and very bold aspect to the message. I don't think anybody has really addressed it in such a way. And I think that to call it pandering is to not be cognizant about this bold new message."

Gingrich's path is a tried and true tradition in Miami. In fact, presidential candidates have brought a steady stream of business to Little Havana restaurants over the years. Ronald Reagan said it all when he visited La Esquina de Tejas in 1980 wearing a guayabera and his down-home Gipper's grin: "Viva Cuba Libre. Cuba si, Castro no."

So did Bill Clinton in 1992, and just about every candidate since.

Even Herman Cain went for that fossil of a phrase on his campaign run through Miami. Sure enough, he made a stop at Versailles, sipped his cafecito and bit into a croqueta, then trotted out his rickety version, along with "nueve, nueve, nueve," in clearly halting Spanish.

The fact is, it's retail politics, Miami-style. And one without much of a downside for pols on the stump, said Florida International University political science professor and Cuban-American politics expert Dario Moreno.

"There's not a lot of people in the United States who like Fidel Castro. So I think a trip to Versailles is pretty safe," he told The Huffington Post as Gingrich's campaign left Little Havana. "Does it buy you anything? Not really. Not much. You still have to do all the other things. You have to mail. You have to buy a lot of TV. You have to campaign. But I think it's also become a ritual of campaigning in Miami."

And it works, he said.

"It resonates. It resonates in the sense that if you're going to compete for 80 percent of the Cuban-American vote, you have to be pro-embargo. In fact, even President Obama came to Miami and gave a pro-embargo speech before the Cuban-American National Foundation."

But the Hispanic voting demographic in South Florida is changing. The Republican-Democrat voter ratio here runs counter to the national norm. Nationally, close to 70 percent of registered Hispanic voters identify as Democrats, compared to 20 percent who call themselves Republican, according to a recent Pew Hispanic Center survey. In South Florida, there are about 40 percent more registered Hispanic Republicans than Democrats.

But the Hispanic population in South Florida is growing increasingly diverse, demographically and politically. Younger Cuban-Americans are not as solidly conservative, nor as solidly Republican as the older generations.

And even the ultra-conservative Cuban American National Foundation, a prime force behind the stiffening of the U.S. embargo on Cuba through the rigid Helms-Burton Act, has morphed into a kinder, gentler version of itself after its founder -- Jorge Mas Canosa -- died and his son took over. Under Jorge Mas Santos, CANF now supports easing both travel restrictions and limits on help for relatives with family on the island.

That's where the "Cuba libre!" campaign stop has a continuing impact, Garcia said, that's felt long after the candidates have moved on.

"Once they get into the White House," he said, "they, of course, do what Bush did, which is, they bark up a storm, Cuba policy became even less mobile and less flexible. And this in spite of the fact that when you look at the poll numbers, the majority of Cubans now favor travel, and the majority of Cubans believe that we've got to find a solution. But it's old habits die hard."

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