MIAMI – President Bush's policies toward Fidel Castro's (search) regime and the war in Iraq are threatening to fray traditionally solid Republican ties to Cuban-American voters, the largest segment of Florida's fast-growing Hispanic community.
In 2000, Bush won Florida by a mere 537 votes, but his advantage among Cubans was about 4-to-1. Non-Cuban Hispanics tend to vote Democratic and are flocking to the state. On Nov. 2, the key to Florida — the decisive swing state four years ago — could well be this disparate Hispanic vote.
Florida's population has grown by more than 1 million since the last presidential election, a 6.5 percent increase from 2000 to July 2003 that could transform the state's electorate. From April 2000 to July 2002, nearly half of those new residents were Hispanic, according to the most recent numbers from the Census Bureau.
South Florida's Cuban-American community of about 600,000 is divided over the Bush administration's policies, with some hard-line exiles complaining that Bush has failed to take a tougher stance against Castro. A younger generation of Cubans who were born in the United States — or raised here most of their lives — are more likely to support engagement with Cuba. They are not knee-jerk Republicans like their parents.
Bush's problems echo within the walls of Versailles Restaurant, a bastion of Cuban exiles in the heart of Miami's Little Havana neighborhood.
"The war in Iraq is no good," says Emelio G. Faroy, sipping a high-octane cup of Cuban coffee. Each election finds this lifelong Republican more open to Democrats.
"Most Cubans have always been Republican by nature. I followed my mother's lead," said the 56-year-old bail bondsman. "But when you get older, and see how things are, you think differently."
Indeed, the restaurant's older patrons — and there are plenty of them — are firmly behind Bush. Men such as Aron Ido, 68, who stops on the way to his car to praise Bush. "I like everything he does, even Iraq," the retiree said.
Many Cuban-Americans abandoned the Democratic Party some 40 years ago, blaming President Kennedy for the debacle of the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. The strong feelings remain, bolstered by President Reagan's anti-communist views and the Republicans' tough-on-Castro message. And, Jeb Bush (search), the president's brother, made converting Cubans his cause in the mid-1980s, before he became Florida's governor in 1998.
The community is expected to vote Republican again Nov. 2. But if enough switch to Bush's Democratic rival, John Kerry — or decide to stay home on Election Day — the president will have to make up those votes elsewhere in this growing state of more than 17 million.
The Republican incumbent hopes to find some votes at R.J.'s barbershop in Tampa, Fla. — or places like it. Richard Jorge's business caters to Puerto Ricans, a few Mexicans and other non-Cubans from Latin America who populate the area. It's a Democratic neighborhood, though swing voters abound.
"I personally think they'll find Usama bin Laden, gas prices will come down, life is good and Bush will win," Jorge said.
Three of his barbers and two of his customers said they were Democrats, all tired of Bush. Jimmy Jorge, the owner's brother, says Bush lost his vote in Iraq. "Saddam was never a threat to us. Now North Korea — there's a threat," he said.
Tens of thousands of non-Cuban Hispanics have flocked to central Florida since 2000, settling along the Interstate 4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando, drawn to the area by an abundance of low-paying service industry jobs.
Even with the huge GOP advantage with Cubans, Democrat Al Gore (search) almost pulled even with Bush among all Hispanic voters in 2000 (Bush 49 percent, Gore 48 percent) — thanks to non-Cubans along I-4. Hispanics were 11 percent of the total Florida vote in 2000.
But Hispanics vote in low percentages, and the newest arrivals don't know or care that Hispanics have a history of siding with Democrats. Thus, they're up for grabs.
Jeb Bush split the non-Cuban vote during his 2002 re-election bid largely because he is fluent in Spanish and reached out to voters in their own language. His TV commercials appealed to the pride Hispanics have for their native countries. It didn't hurt, either, that his wife, Columba, is Mexican.
But there's no guarantee that the president can fare as well as his brother.
"There are different reasons to vote for president than governor," Jeb Bush says.
Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, a wildly popular Cuban Democrat, said Kerry needs to start doing more to court Hispanics.
"People are upset with the president, which is good. What we want him to do is show the real John Kerry and not the one that President Bush and his hatchet men portray him to be," Martinez said. Following the White House's lead, Kerry recently began airing Spanish-language ads.
Back in Little Havana, Carlos Agrait, 44, sits before his laptop at the Versailles Bakery. The cafe is next to the Versailles Restaurant, but at times seems a world away: Its patrons are younger, tend to be bilingual and are starting to question their parents' politics.
"They are sheep. Simple, stupid sheep," Agrait says. "They are old. They are losing power. They are stuck in the past. They have been systematically isolated by their political leaders, convinced that isolating Cuba is the be-all and end-all. They've been told to vote Republican and, like sheep, they follow."
In a series of interviews over two days, Cuban-Americans didn't need prompting to raise concerns about Iraq and, in some cases, Bush.
"The problem with the Cuban people is we don't feel Cuba will ever be free because the government of the United States is more interested in freeing Iraq," said Portal Santiago, 65, who voted for Bush in 2000.
Democratic pollster Sergio Bendixen said he's heard the same complaints in Cuban-American focus groups.
"The question they keep asking is if President Bush invaded Iraq to bring democracy, why won't he do the same for Cuba? How many people from Iraq voted for him?" Bendixen said.
Al Cardenas, former chairman of the Florida GOP, said he's heard concerns about Iraq, too, "but I don't see them converting voters to the other guy, like Clinton did."
Former President Clinton deftly courted Cubans by promising to be tough on Castro and signing the 1996 Helms-Burton Act that tightened the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba.
Bush is ever mindful of Cuban exiles' political and financial clout. Criticized for returning Cuban refugees to Castro's government last year, the administration has unveiled an anti-Castro strategy that restricts the ability of Cuban-Americans to visit relatives in Cuba and limits spending during family visits.
The policy angered some moderate Cuban-Americans, especially newer arrivals with relatives still in Cuba.
"The embargo made sense 40 years ago, but it's time to open things up like we did with China," said Frank Chinea, a 52-year-old artist who normally votes Republican but is now on the fence. "Let the families get together."
Kerry sees a chance to exploit an issue that has caused him trouble. In an interview with the Miami Herald last week, the Democrat backed the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and support for dissidents, but called Bush's policy a "cynical and misguided ploy for a few Florida votes."
Critics accused Kerry of waffling on the issue, noting that he said in 2000 that the trade embargo arose from the "politics of Florida."
"If you had to pick the one place where the flip-flop issue comes into play, it's Cuba," Jeb Bush said.
Bendixen says his polling shows that while 80 percent of Florida voters born in Cuba support the president, a majority of those born in the United States favor Kerry.
Jeb Bush retorts, "I don't believe it." Dismissing Bendixen's polls and a reporter's anecdotes with a sigh, the governor says he's heard it all before — yet he argues Cubans have never, and will never, abandon the GOP.
"This is like birds migrate in the winter South and they go back North — and I've heard this over and over again," Bush said. He said Bob Dole ran a "lousy" campaign in 1996 and still won the Cuban vote.
In 2000, the Clinton administration returned castaway Elian Gonzalez (search) to Cuba, stirring a huge GOP turnout in the Cuban-American community.
Bush backers, including Luis Zuniga of the Cuban Liberty Counsel (search), predict a lower turnout this year — bad news for Bush. In a bid to boost turnout, the White House urged Cuban-American Mel Martinez to leave his Cabinet post as secretary of Housing and Urban Development and run for the Senate in Florida.
Many Cuban-Americans, including some at odds with the hard-line exiles, doubt that Bush will lose his share of the Cuban vote.
"You might hear some grumbling now, but it won't have any effect," said Magda Montiel Davis, a 51-year-old immigration attorney. She has encouraged open dialogue with Castro, a stance that has made her a pariah at Versailles. "They're idiots," she says of fellow Cuban-Americans.
Ordering another coffee at the Versailles bakery, Agrait said the Cuban vote will inch toward the political center as the older generation dies. At the same time, non-Cuban Hispanics will move from the left to become more of a swing vote.
"Things are changing so fast," the stockbroker said. "But not fast enough to stop Bush this time."