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Does Cuba really matter in the presidential campaign?

This first appeared in Columbia Journalism Review.

By Brian E. Crowley

FLORIDA — Does Cuba really matter?

If asked that question by a reporter, both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney would likely reply: Yes, absolutely.

Unfortunately, the question of whether Cuba matters—and how, and to whom—is rarely explored in the media, even as Cuba’s role in shaping politics in this key swing state is taken for granted.

Instead, most reporters take the easy way out, especially those from outside Florida. The reporting will generally be something like this:

Presidential candidate X came to South Florida today to assure Cuban-Americans that if elected he will strongly oppose the Castro regime and refuse to lift the embargo until human rights and freedom are restored. Florida’s Cuban exile community is one of this swing-state’s most important voting blocs.

This is careless and cliché-laden reporting. And while President Obama’s shifts in policy and rhetoric have introduced a slightly different frame, too much is obscured when reporters accept politicians’ sound bites, whether it’s Mitt Romney’s declaration that “the regime will feel the full weight of American resolve” or Obama’s promise that he will “send a signal that we are prepared to show flexibility and not be stuck in a cold war mentality dating back to when I was born.”

The United States embargo against Cuba is a complex topic that creates deep divisions in Congress and, perhaps more importantly, within the Cuban-American community. Agricultural interests and other industries outside of Florida have long questioned the validity of continuing the embargo—but have largely failed in their efforts to shift the policy because of the influence of hard-core, pro-embargo Cuban-Americans who long ago learned how to wield political power.

But even that storyline obscures the growing change within South Florida’s Cuban-American community. Third and fourth generation Cuban-Americans are typical of every immigrant group that comes to the United States—each succeeding generation tends to be less wedded to the causes of the previous generation. As a result, the shorthand view that Cuban Americans are in lockstep on issues related to Castro and Cuban policy is lazy reporting.

South Florida reporters do tend to look much deeper, and they uncover some stories that national reporters might follow to get past well-worn clichés. In a fascinating articleThe Miami Herald’s Juan O. Tamayo wrote in September about a new wave of Cuban immigrants moving to Tampa to get away from Miami, the historic center of the Cuban-American population

One was a senior Cuban government official who handled more than $700 million in U.S. imports in one year. Another is the son of a top Cuban army general. And then there’s the daughter of the island’s powerful vice president. 

All three defected and became part of a little-known trend among Cubans who escape their communist-ruled country and settle in Tampa, a city with strong historical ties to the island but not a major focus of current Cuban expatriate life. 

Why Tampa? 

To avoid Miami’s anti-Castro cauldron, analysts say. But also because the defectors are less likely to be recognized on the streets and because Miami has many knowledgeable FBI agents — and too many Castro spies.

The group blog The Havana Note also offers interesting perspectives that could guide reporters, and offer a foundation for some sharper questioning of candidates. An example is a July post column by Anya Laudau French, editor of the blog and director of the New America Foundation’s U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative. Under the headline “Who would be better for Cuba: Obama or Romney?” she writes:

During the height of the Cold War, bringing down the Castro government, which was closely allied to the Soviet Bloc, was a matter of national security. But after the Berlin Wall fell, Cuba no longer mattered. 

… Cuba is a pit stop on the Florida campaign trail and little else.

And, later in the post:

And yet, more reasonable doesn’t necessarily mean Cuba matters more to the current occupant of the White House any more than it did to the last. President Bush was willing to separate families, while President Obama seems oblivious to the historic changes in Cuba underway today, both because real events and impacts on the island aren’t the point. Domestic political advantage is.

That brings us back to the question that started this piece: Does Cuba really matter?

It is an important question that should be asked by national reporters who travel to Florida and accept a five-decade story line. And that fundamental question leads to some others, like: Why does Cuba matter? What is the strategic importance of Cuba? How does continuing the embargo help the Cuban population? What should we do when the Castro regime ends?

But with the candidates saying little about Cuba unless they happen to be in Miami, and national reporters doing little to press them on the issue, perhaps we already know the answer to one question: No, Cuba does not matter—not to the national media, anyway.



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