My grandmother retired twenty-five years ago from an American career in Health and Human Services. Recruited to work for the Cuban Refugee Program on emigrating to Miami in 1961, she parlayed her administrative skills into the food stamps program. For the next quarter century, through transfers to Homestead and North Miami, surviving a mugging on the I-95 entrance on Northwest Seventy-Ninth Street, she must have distributed a few million dollars in aid. JFK and LBJ signed the Cuban Refugee Program and Cuban Adjustment Act into law; I suspect President Goldwater would have eschewed his principles and signed them too.
I mention these facts because I get asked why Cubans are the only powerful Hispanic group in the United States that has voted for the GOP with redoubtable consistency since the sixties. To mention Kennedy’s “betrayal” — accepting the Cuban flag from Bay of Pigs veterans of Brigade 2506 while Jackie Kennedy charmed the screaming crowd with dinner table Spanish — is to give too facile a reading. As a general rule Cubans like winners. They relish intrigue. To a Cuban winning and intrigue are inseparable. What Virgilio R. Gonzales and Eugenio R. Martinez were doing breaking into the Watergate Hotel in June 1972 was inspired by a farcical notion of patriotism: if we break a few laws, maybe the president himself will give the Cuba problem another look. After all his best friend, insofar as Nixon had friends instead of toadies, was Bebe Rebozo, the son of Cuban immigrants. Nixon’s valet? Manolo Sanchez – Cuban.
It’s important to remember that between LBJ and Bill Clinton we Americans had elected only one Democrat to the White House, and in the eyes of many Cubans the man from Plains, Georgia did not conduct himself in a manner becoming an occupant of the Lincoln Bedroom; he didn’t comport himself like one of his immediate predecessors who, in a froth, ordered the defoliation of a sovereign country and whose lackeys burgled the psychiatrist as a result of a minor political threat. Jimmy Carter wore cardigans. He raised the thermostat. He looked miserable. He let his daughter roller skate in the Oval Office. The Mariel boat lift inspires a fascinating congeries of impressions: grateful to see relatives again, the first wave of Cubans regard the release of thousands of Cubans into Florida Bay in 1980 as the kind of embarrassment that inspires stammers and changes of subject; their relatives came with riff-raff, their relatives were riff-raff.
Because Jimmy Carter didn’t posture as convincingly as his presidential colleagues, Cubans who were citizens voted for Ronald Wilson Reagan — “I became a Republican thanks to Ronald Reagan,” my grandmother said not long ago. The man who made her a Republican sought in his first term to eviscerate the programs she had worked twenty years to build. South Florida’s biggest local legend Claude Pepper fought back. The Reagan administration reeled. My grandmother drove my sister and me to Aventura Mall. Meanwhile the reelection of Reagan increased the patriotic tumult. Joan Didion’s Miami, published in the mid ’80s, captures the city as the combination of drug money, paramilitary operatives, and local personalities with NSA and White House connections. Perhaps now something was going happen.
In the nineties Cubans could still pick winners and comers. Jose Mas Canosa, the scion of the exile movement’s political wing, gave Bill Clinton his blessing. Events took their course: more people fleeing the island nation in 1994, Cuban planes shooting down Brothers to the Rescue pilots, the modification to the Cuban Adjustment Act known as “wet foot, dry foot.” The worst act of betrayal in Cuban American eyes, however, occurred in April 2000 when federal agents seized Elian Gonzalez after the government ran out of patience. It’s at this point that I realized our national image. When Americans in Portland or Dubuque watched national news, they’d see Gloria Estefan and Andy Garcia holding hands around the domicile where Elian lived temporarily. Although not the first time my parents and I differed on Cuban politics, I never felt so isolated. Choosing where to make a last stand creates its own momentum. The consequences were long foreseen: Elian would be reunited with his father, Al Gore would pay a heavy price.
The last gasp of the exile elite occurred during the Bush years. Otto Reich, responsible for “disinformation” and psy ops in Central America during the Reagan years, earned a government salary again.Bloggers got invited to the White House. Meanwhile American citizens like my father, a Miami resident since he was a boy of 10 in 1961, realized that the last fifty years had been an elaborate con. “Fun and games, man, fun and games,” Joe Pesci’s David Ferrie barks in the most trenchant line Oliver Stone wrote in JFK. In the minds of successive presidential administrations Fidel Castro was a person of vague awfulness and Cubans could turn out the vote, beneficiaries of the most compassionate and encompassing immigration and naturalization policy in U.S. history. “We were products of the Cold War,” he has said more than once without sadness.
Now, products of memory. Cubans can’t forget the broken promises. They can’t let go of the hate, and Cubans hate deeply and inexorably. Bill Clinton they hate, therefore his wife must not be elected. They may dismiss Donald Trump as el imbecil but he’s not Hillary Clinton. Nothing speaks to the success of the Cuban emigration and subsequent integration than the degree to which their views and a political party dating back to 1860’s have become indistinguishable