America Decides 2004 in Florida, Cuban Jews Poised to Vote Republican, Bucking Trend

Jaime Suchlicki and Bernardo Benes both were born in Cuba, they’re both academics associated with Miami-based think tanks and they’re both Jewish. That’s where the similarities end.

Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies, is a staunch supporter of President Bush and the 45-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the Castro government in Cuba.

Benes, founder of the nonprofit group Cuban Americans for Change, says those policies make no sense and that “our main objective is to defeat President Bush and kick him out of the White House.”

Such opposing sentiments illustrate the dilemma faced by South Florida’s 10,000 or so Jewish voters of Cuban descent. While their American Jewish brethren in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties are expected to vote overwhelmingly for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) — following an American Jewish tradition of voting Democratic — Cuban Jews have a different agenda.

“The majority of Cuban Jews will support Bush, in part because of his Cuba policy but also because of Bush’s support for Israel,” said Suchlicki, 64, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland who left his native Cuba in 1960, a year after Fidel Castro came to power.

“I think you’re going to see a move away from Kerry by the Jewish community,” he said. “I can’t predict by what quantity, but there’s going to be stronger support for Bush this time by both” Cuban and non-Cuban Jews.

On the other hand, the Bush administration’s recent crackdown on family travel to Cuba could backfire among less conservative elements of the community.

In June, the White House tightened existing travel restrictions to Cuba, the most controversial among them being a rule that now limits trips by Cuban-Americans to once every three years, and only to visit immediate family — excluding aunts, uncles and cousins. Before, Cubans with family on the island could travel there once a year, without restrictions on whom they visited.

The move infuriated Cubans of both parties, with Kerry immediately attacking the Bush policy as anti-family and promising to rescind it if elected. Shortly afterward, Joe Garcia, executive director of the 20,000-member, conservative Cuban American National Foundation, resigned to campaign for Kerry, though he’s still a member of the CANF board of directors.

“Cuban Jews have a tendency to vote conservative, and in this election, the Republicans have made a huge effort to reach out to Ariel Sharon,” the Israeli prime minister, which could attract Jewish voters, Garcia told JTA. “Some polls show there is slippage to the Republican Party among older Jewish voters.”

Moises Asis, a social worker who won political asylum in the United States 10 years ago, used to live in a crumbling Havana apartment building. Today he and his wife Teresa own a beautiful townhouse in Kendall, a Miami suburb dominated by Cubans — and they’re both proud members of the Republican Party.

“For me, Kerry is like Fidel Castro,” said Asis, who already has cast a ballot for Bush in early voting. “He lies all the time, manipulating people in order to get their vote. He doesn’t believe what he says. At least Bush believes what he says. He has convictions.”

Asis, formerly secretary of the B’nai B’rith lodge in Havana, says most members of Temple Beth Shmuel Cuban-Hebrew Congregation in Miami Beach, where Asis attends services, are Bush supporters.

According to a survey conducted in early September by Miami pollster Sergio Bendixen, 72 percent of Cuban-American respondents said they expected to vote for Bush, while 19 percent said they’d support Kerry.

That’s down slightly from 2000, when Bush got 82 percent of the community’s votes, as opposed to 17 percent for former Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic candidate.

Observers point out that the 10 percent decrease in Cuban-American support for the Republicans would translate into 45,000 fewer votes for the president — which is why, despite its small size, the Cuban Jewish community is nothing for either candidate to sneeze at in a hotly contested state.

Suchlicki says that even if it’s a question of a few thousand votes, “anything is significant” in this election.

“Bush has been supportive of the State of Israel, unquestionably much stronger than any Democrats in the past,” he said. “And on Cuba, he’s been reluctant to change policy. He’s tightening it.”

Benes, 75, a retired banker, says Suchlicki’s talk about Bush being pro-Israel is misleading, because “Bush hasn’t done anything specifically in favor of Jews or Israel that any other president hasn’t done since Israel’s establishment in 1948.”

During the Carter administration, Benes earned the wrath of fellow Cuban exiles for undertaking a dialogue with Castro — sanctioned and supported by Washington — that ultimately led to the release of more than 3,000 political prisoners, as well as family reunification visits to the island by Cuban exiles in the United States.

Benes added that, despite the White House’s anti-Castro rhetoric, “Bush has collaborated more with Castro than any other administration in history.”

He pointed out that U.S. companies have sold more than $700 million worth of food to Cuba since 2001, when certain restrictions were lifted to allow agriculture exports on a cash-only basis.

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