01/30/2012 12:14 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Newt Gingrich's Complicated Past With Cuban Americans

Like much of the GOP establishment, Miami's Cuban-American Republican elected officials are dreading the possibility of having Newt Gingrich at the top of the ticket this year. The conventional wisdom among the party's elite is that Gingrich at best is a brilliant thinker who helped his party win back control of Congress; at worse he's an undisciplined blowhard who helped President Clinton win a second term.

To illustrate the latter point, the example most often used by the media is Gingrich's role in the government shutdown of 1995/1996 that sent Clinton's poll numbers surging. Surprisingly, what has been overlooked by the media in the run-up to the Florida primary is how Gingrich alienated the leadership of one of the Republican Party's most reliable voters: Cuban Americans.

Gingrich and Cuban Americans

The tension from the 1990s seemed to resurface again last week when Gingrich charged Mitt Romney with being "the most anti-immigrant candidate" in a Spanish-language radio ad. The accusation raised eyebrows in South Florida and was quickly rebuked by Senator Marco Rubio and Cuban-American Romney backers in a public letter to Gingrich. Cuban-American Republican leaders were surprised by Gingrich's attack; it surprised them not because of the substance of the message, but because of the messenger's complicated past with their community, as well as because of the former speaker's behind-the-scenes role in lending a mainstream voice within the GOP to much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric that haunts them today.

Contract with America

The Republicans' present-day challenges courting Hispanic voters can be traced back to a year that otherwise went extraordinarily well for them: 1994. This was the year when California's GOP governor, Pete Wilson, championed Proposition 187, a measure that banned non-U.S. citizens from using public services such as schools and hospitals. The ballot initiative passed (and was later declared unconstitutional in the courts), but in the process, it awakened a sleeping giant in the U.S. Hispanic community and was the beginning of what former Florida governor, Jeb Bush, described this week as the GOP's "harsh, intolerable and inexcusable" language on immigration.

To my knowledge, Newt Gingrich had nothing to do with Prop. 187, and in due fairness, he has attempted to strike a more moderate and humane tone on immigration this year than his GOP rivals; however, his 1994 crowning achievement singled out Hispanic immigrants and used immigration as a tool to rally the conservative base and propelled them to power in Washington much in the same fashion that Wilson used anti-immigrant sentiments to his benefit in Sacramento.

Six weeks before the historic 1994 midterm election in which the GOP regained control of the House for the first time since 1954, Republican leaders gathered on the steps of the Capitol and presented the nation with their "Contract With America." The contract (a brainchild of the conservative Heritage Foundation and co-authored by Gingrich, among others) outlined the 10 government reform measures the GOP pledged to pass through Congress if voters kicked the Democrats out of office and installed Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House. All but three Republican members of Congress signed it, including Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, both Cuban Americans from South Florida.

While most contentious policies regarding illegal immigration do not directly affect most Cuban Americans due to the Cuban Adjustment Act, English-only laws and some of the provisions within Gingrich's contract turned off many in South Florida due to its impact on many Cuban Americans who are legal residents but not yet citizens. As such, Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen argued that "one of the ten bills that the contract sought to bring to a floor vote was 'unconstitutional and inhumane' because it sought to ban welfare programs for non-citizens, including legal resident immigrants," as reported by the Washington Post. Moreover, its provisions to make English the official language of the United States found strong opposition from Diaz-Balart who characterized the bill as "an aggression against linguistic minorities" and "undemocratic" in a heated debate with Gingrich. Added Diaz-Balart, "I felt so strongly about the specific aspects of welfare reform that denied benefits to legal immigrants, that I did not want to accept the whole package because of that item"

Gingrich's Loss, Clinton's Gain

Mas Canosa with President Clinton

As with the government shutdown, the 42nd president capitalized on Gingrich and the GOP's immigration faux-pas and scored a political slam dunk with Cuban Americans in 1996. Bill Clinton, who has family ties to South Florida via Hillary's Cuban sister-in-law, astutely portrayed the immigrant-related measures, which Bob Dole embraced, as "draconian" and reminded the fiscally conservative Cuban American electorate of his pledge to "end welfare as we know it" and cut taxes while campaigning in Miami. On election night, Clinton earned 38% of the Cuban-American vote, an historic high-water mark among Democratic presidential candidates, and became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Florida since 1976.

To put the significance of Clinton's Cuban American inroads into perspective, consider the following: In 1992, only 22% of the Cuban American community voted for then-Governor Clinton. For years over 70% of Cuban Americans were registered as Republicans, yet Clinton managed to get 38% of the vote. Another way to look at it is that if subsequent Democratic presidential candidates would have mirrored Clinton's 1996 performance among Cuban Americans when broken down by a share of the vote by party, we would be speaking about former President Gore right now. Moreover, President Obama would be in a much more comfortable position to win Florida again and thus, the presidency, this year.

While Gingrich's rift with Cuban American elected officials certainly didn't do Bob Dole any favors in Miami, it would be unfair to lay the entire blame for 1996's election results at the former speaker's feet. The Republicans made mistakes but Clinton also did a lot of things right. His signing of the Helms-Burton Act -- following the Cuban regime's shootdown of two civilian manned aircrafts over international waters -- imposed the toughest sanctions against Fidel Castro in a generation. This earned Clinton praise from the influential Cuban American National Foundation's late leader, Jorge Mas Canosa. Not to mention that by 1996, the U.S. economy was booming.

Nonetheless, Gingrich put Miami's Cuban-American Republicans in the unenviable position of having to explain their support for a presidential candidate who backed policies that were incredibly unpopular within their own community.

A Long Memory

Heading into this week's election, it certainly isn't to Gingrich's benefit that Cuban politics, going as far back as pre-1959, have typically been more about personal alliances than ideology. For example: ours is a community where the overwhelming majority of us agree on the principles of what should be the United States' policy toward Cuba, yet there are literally dozens of competing organizations generally promoting the same set of policies (with some minor nuanced differences) mainly due to personality conflicts amongst our leaders.

Accordingly, Gingrich's spats in the 90s with Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart won't help him on Tuesday with a community that makes up 70% of Republican voters in Miami-Dade County . His former House colleagues enthusiastically welcomed Mitt Romney last Wednesday at a luncheon hosted by the powerful US Cub Democracy PAC at the Freedom Tower, Miami's Ellis Island. Joining them were former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, ex-Senator Mel Martinez and Al Cardenas, past president of the Republican Party of Florida.

It's worth noting that Cuban American Republicans have historically sided with their party's establishment candidates: Bush in '88, Dole in '96, Bush in 2000, McCain 2008, etc. Interestingly though, 2012 marks the first time there has been division within the GOP's Cuban American congressional delegation. Senator Rubio has pledged to stay out of the race and Miami's David Rivera, who is of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent, is backing Gingrich. Also backing the former speaker is Henry Gomez of the Babalu Blog, a popular source of Cuba news and conservative editorials among Cuban Americans, and who was also among the first to endorse Rubio in 2010. Whether young Cuban-American Republicans are more ideologically conservative than their parents and grandparents should be the subject of further study and may make for a more interesting question than the endless speculation surrounding the "Cuban generational shift."

What is clear after last week is that hesitations about Gingrich among Republican decision-makers know no language barriers. Like most of the Republican establishment, the Cuban-American GOP leadership is siding with Romney in part because (fairly or unfairly) they view Gingrich as an erratic leader who, despite his smarts, helped the Democrats score huge political victories in the 1990s.

If past performance and recent polls are any indication of future results, expect Romney to win big with Cuban Americans on Tuesday. As the axiom says, elephants have long memories, especially Cuban ones.

Giancarlo Sopo is a political consultant living in Coral Gables, FL who specializes in US Hispanic and Latin American politics. In 2010, he was named by CNN en Espanol as one of America's leading young Hispanics under 30; he cannot dance salsa and is still trying to master the art of the semicolon.