Was vote by Miami’s Cuban community a referendum on Obama’s policy?

Donald Trump visits Bay of Pigs museum and addresses the Brigade 2506, veterans of the Cuban battle on Tuesday, October 25, 2016.
Donald Trump visits Bay of Pigs museum and addresses the Brigade 2506, veterans of the Cuban battle on Tuesday, October 25, 2016. adiaz@miamiherald.com

Did Donald Trump win in Florida because of Barack Obama’s decision to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba?

That was the conclusion of Miami-Dade’s Cuban-American congressional delegation at a press conference Thursday to mark the two-year anniversary of Obama’s decision to reverse decades of U.S. policy and work toward normalizing the troubled relationship. On Dec. 17, 2014, the president announced he would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after the communist regime led by Raúl Castro freed American political prisoner Alan Gross and other dissidents.

“Within the Cuban-American community, the presidential election results demonstrate a direct rebuke of Obama’s Cuba policy reversal,” said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican.

But an analysis of the vote in Miami-Dade, where one out of three residents is Cuban-American, shows that Hillary Clinton surpassed Obama's 2012 totals and performance versus Mitt Romney in many of the most heavily Cuban precincts.

It also showed that many of the same people who voted for Clinton, who supports lifting the embargo, also voted for pro-embargo Republicans such as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo, Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz Balart.

“Despite claims that Obama’s Cuba policy hurt Clinton, the data shows no evidence that Cuba policy played a pivotal role in the election results,” said Giancarlo Sopo, a Democratic strategist and an advocate of lifting the embargo, who conducted the analysis with Guillermo Grenier, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Florida International University.

Donald Trump spoke to the Cuban American National Foundation in 1999, casting himself as a pro-embargo hardliner who refused to do potentially lucrative business in Cuba until Fidel Castro was gone. Keyframe photo by Tim Chapman of Donald Trump as

They reviewed the precinct-level election data in Miami-Dade and found that Clinton not only edged Trump by 290,000 votes, but in heavily Cuban-American neighborhoods and precincts such as Westchester, Hialeah and West Miami, she did better than either Obama or Romney four years ago, their research found.

“It would be almost impossible to get that amount [in the county] without getting a majority of the Cuban-American vote,” said Dario Moreno, political scientist at Florida International University.

But does this mean they are supportive of ending the embargo? That answer isn’t clear.

“Given the record of controversial remarks Trump made about Latinos, you can’t assume Cubans voted for Hillary because of the Cuba issue,” Moreno said. “I agree that Hillary won the majority of the Cuban vote, but given the overwhelming support for Marco, who is now the most prominent critic of Obama’s Cuba policy, I don’t think you can say this is support for Obama’s Cuba policy.”

Instead, he believes, the data “shows just how much things are in flux in the community. It’s not like it was years ago when the community spoke with one voice.”

Some conclusions: Fewer Cuban voters are one-issue, anti-Castro voters than ever before, and Cuba policy is no longer the third rail for Democrats in Miami-Dade County.

Moreno estimates that among the Cuban voters in Florida, 15 percent to 20 percent are hard-line Cuba-first voters, and the rest are “willing to look at alternative policies for Cuba.”

A poll of likely Cuban-American voters in Miami-Dade taken by Moreno and another by Democratic pollster Bendixen and Amandi before Trump changed his Cuba policy showed Trump had the majority support of Cuban-American voters in Miami-Dade. After his announcement, a poll by Bendixen and Amandi showed that support didn’t change.

According to the 2016 Cuba poll by Florida International University, with a sample of 743 Cuban-American voters in Miami-Dade, nearly 70 percent said they support the U.S. decision to open diplomatic relations with Cuba and 63 percent oppose the U.S. embargo of the island nation.

Of the embargo supporters, 72 percent are Republicans, who likely voted for Trump regardless of Clinton’s position on the issue.

In a wide-ranging interview focused on South Florida issues on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016, Donald Trump talks about climate change and Cuba policy, and for the first time, says that Congress should set aside money to fight Zika.

“There is a significant percentage of the Cuban-American community that is going to vote Republican under any circumstance, but that share is shrinking relative to the rest of the community, which is moving a different direction,” said Sopo, who is 33 and whose father was a Bay of Pigs veteran.

Miami-Dade’s Cuban delegation, however, cited a SurveyUSA poll of 600 Miami-Dade Cubans taken earlier this month that offered a different conclusion. The poll found that four out of five believe that “America should stop efforts to open trade with Cuba until the Raúl Castro government takes steps toward making Cuba a free society.” 

“Hopefully with President-elect Trump, we may have an opportunity to reverse some of the damage inflicted on the cause for freedom and democracy in Cuba,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas

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