Since Barack Obama set out to improve the United States’ relationship with Cuba, embassies have reopened in both countries, American tourists can now travel to the island, and in an unprecedented move, the U.S. abstained from voting on a United Nations decision condemning the Cuban embargo. Only last month, the U.S. lifted restrictions that had previously banned people from bringing back Cuban rum and cigars. These changes suggest that the path to the normalization of relations between the two countries is already paved.
However, the outcome of the presidential election will determine the direction that U.S.-Cuba relations will take. Last week, Republican candidate Donald Trump said at a rally in Miami that he will reverse Obama’s deals with Cuba. Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton pledged to follow Obama’s efforts to end the embargo.
Cubans are the only people who can become U.S. residents after one year in the country, thanks to the Cuban Adjustment Act, a law enacted in 1966. After five years, they can get citizenship, making them eligible to vote. Unlike most Latin Americans who support Hillary Clinton, Cubans are split in their political opinions, partly because they disagree on how the United States should proceed in its relations with Cuba.
The Cuban Revolution and the U.S 2016 Presidential Election
After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Fidel Castro introduced communism to the island, which resulted in a wave of Cuban immigrants who were against this regime immigrating to the United States.
“That generation suffered a lot because they took away what they had earned through years of work” said Gonzalo Hernández, photographer and family man, who came to the US in his early twenties. His maternal grandfather, the man who introduced solar heaters to Cuba, lost his business to the Cuban revolutionary forces. “One day he came to his factory and it was full of military personnel and they asked him ‘do you work in here?’, he said he was the owner and they said ‘no, you are not the owner anymore, the owner is the people’” Hernández narrates. In a similar way, his paternal grandfather was dispossessed of his law firm.
Hernandez’s aunt, who similarly lost her beauty salon, left the country with her family and consequently, was forced to leave her apartment to the government. As many Cubans at the time, she had to part away from the life she s
aid to feel satisfied with. “My aunt suffered a whole lot and she could not stand Fidel,” Hernandez says. “People who lost to Fidel live with a lot of resentment.”
For some, this resentment is what makes a lot of exiled Cubans against Democrats. “Cubans in the U.S associate Hillary with communism, they
make a parallel between her and the Cuban government.” Johan Carlos Sánchez, 53, artist, says. “
They have a deep hidden wound.”
Nestor Diaz de Villegas, a poet, essayist and critic that has been living in the United States and writing about Cuba for 37 years says, “we always go Republican, there is nothing positive a Democrat can bring to those who have experienced socialism.”
However, from his point of view the wounds of the revolution are not the reason why Cubans are conservatives, but rather,their familiarity with the development of communism “it is not resentment, it is wisdom, it is knowledge” Diaz de Villegas says.
The Cuban government took Diaz de Villegas apart from the island after he was forced to spend some years as a juvenile prisoner. All of these for having written and distributed a poem criticizing the change of name of a prominent street in Havana.
After the Chilean coup in the seventies, the government decided to change the name of a prominent street in Havana, instead of ‘Carlos III’ the street would be named after Salvador Allende. 18-year-old Diaz de Villegas, who did not agree with Allende’s policies, wrote a poem protesting the change of name. The poem cost him five years of prison.
He came to the United States in 1979, with an agreement signed by Jimmy Carter to release political prisoners. He did not take the decision that took him away from his friends, family and his country. “I felt it was a punishment” Diaz de Villegas says, who could never see her mother again before she died.
For him, a lot of Cubans are conservative because they come from a society very similar to a democratic one in the United States and that society evolved into a dictatorship that has lasted 58 years. “I see what happens when Democrats are in power and I see it is very similar to the process I experienced in Cuba” Diaz de Villegas says, “we understand it, why? because I spent 5 years incarcerated because of something similar.”
Even though he is a conservative as many other Cubans – including the congress Republican Cuban-American Ros-Lehtinen– Diaz de Villegas is not a Trump supporter. “We see Donald Trump and we see a donkey,” Diaz de Villegas says.“We have issues with voting for that animal.”
Even though he is also against Hillary Clinton, today he is going out to vote. “I am going to flip a coin: heads or tails” Diaz de Villegas says, “I am going to vote anyway because it is a right I did not have in my own country.”
Why Do Cubans Support Trump?
Regardless of Trump’s loss of support from both parties, many still believe in him. “I could not say he is a Republican candidate because he does not have the Republican party support, I would dare to say that Trump is almost running independently.” Rosa Maria Suarez, 58 says. She came to the Unites States 15 years ago, works at a business office in Miami, and it is a true Trump supporter. “He has uncovered a lot of corruption from both the Democratic and the Republican party,” she says.
In Havana, Suarez says she belonged to a political opposition group that distributed forbidden literature and entered the US Interest Section –now the American embassy– to file human rights complaints in Cuba. According to Suarez, her political involvement had consequences. “I suffered bullying, persecution, isolation and even physical attacks,” Suarez says “up until the point I had to adhere to a political refugee program that takes those whose lives are in danger away from Cuba.”
Suarez is against the Democratic party because she does not agree with the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba. “the embargo must be uplifted after agreements are reached about free and democratic elections,” she says.
A week ago, at a rally in Miami, Trump said he would cancel the deal Obama has established with Cuba unless he got “the treatment that Cubans, both here and in Cuba, deserve.”
According to everyone interviewed, this opinion is widely shared among Cuban exile Republicans, who see the uplifting of the embargo as a concession to a regime that should not stand in place. From their point of view, the embargo must not occur until Cuba is democratically governed.
Why Are Younger Cubans Democrat?
Suarez’ generation was born at the offset of the Cuban revolution. They experienced the lack of resources in the special period (a time of very strong economical crisis), economic hardship due to the embargo, and other issues of the communist regime, but not all of them experienced the repression Suarez endured or the property loss of those who were old enough to remember the revolution.
“My generation was born after Fidel, I did not see what my grandfather had before or what was taken from him, I did not see the job my dad lost” Hernández says. Hernández is a Democrat, as well as Suarez’ sister, who is only two years younger. They do not support the Cuban government, but they believe in the improvement of the U.S-Cuba relations and in the uplifting of the embargo. “My generation grew up hating the embargo because everything that was wrong in the country was blamed on it.”
This is also the case for subsequent generations. “Either because of their age or because they see the world in a different way, the number exiled Cubans who identify more with democratic, liberal, and progressive ideas is increasing.” says Sandor Valdés, 38, a Democrat activist who came to the United States at age 15 and lives in Miami.
Data supports this claim. According to the Pew Research Center, although Republicans still outnumber Democrats in Miami-Dade County, where the majority of Cuban Americans live –46 percent–, there is a democratic trend: in the past 10 years the number of Democrats has increased by 62 percent.
“It is very rare to see someone my age who is not a Democrat” says a young Cuban Trump supporter, who decided to remain anonymous, “if you are a Republican, they want to eat you.”
The divide in political views among Cubans in the United States is influenced by their different experiences with the Cuban government, and their view on what must be the policy for the island. Cubans exiles remain, however, Republicans in their majority.