Eight years after the furor over the repatriation of Elian Gonzalez to Cuba possibly cost Al Gore the state of Florida in his 537-vote loss to George W. Bush, the international custody saga has returned to haunt another Democratic presidential nominee: Barack Obama.
Having two top advisers who played key roles in the episode — Greg Craig, who represented Gonzalez's father in Cuba, and Eric Holder, then a Clinton administration deputy attorney general when federal agents stormed the Miami home of Gonzalez’s relatives to remove the then-6-year-old and return him to Cuba — Obama now finds himself on the wrong side of an emotional issue in a battleground state.
The wound reopened again last week after Gonzalez returned to the headlines in South Florida following a report in a Cuban communist youth newspaper that he has joined Cuba’s Young Communist Union.
Miami-based Republican political consultant Ana Navarro said the stature of Holder and Craig in the Obama campaign “shows a tone-deafness to the Cuban American community's concerns.”
“Elian Gonzalez cost Al Gore Florida and the presidency,” she added.
Indeed, in a display of lingering resentment, Obama’s speech before the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Miami last weekend was picketed by several dozen activists protesting Craig, who serves as a foreign policy adviser to Obama, and Holder, who is a legal adviser and a member of the Illinois senator’s vice presidential search committee.
Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, an independent who rode his role as the lawyer for Gonzalez’s Miami relatives into the mayor’s office in a 2001 upset victory, has pointedly declined to endorse Obama.
As Republicans see it, the return of the Elian Gonzalez debate to the Spanish-language media will only strengthen traditional GOP loyalties among Cuban Americans at a time when there may be a generational divide between older hard-liners and younger voters who are receptive to a different direction in American policy toward Cuba.
“Every four years, for at least the last 20 years, some media and some pollsters always predict that the Democrats are going to make inroads with Cuban Americans,” said Otto Reich, who is advising John McCain on Latin American affairs and who served in a senior capacity for the administrations of the last three Republican presidents. “Perhaps one day that might be true. But I don’t think this is the case now. Barack Obama is not the kind of candidate for a people who tend to be very traditional in their values and very hawkish in their foreign policy support.”
Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, a former Republican National Committee chairman who was born in Cuba, echoed the sentiment.
“Every four years, I hear the same speculation,” Martinez said. “What I sense in the community is a much stronger concern about an Obama presidency among Cuban Americans than anything I remember in [John] Kerry’s campaign."
The last Democrat to make inroads with the Cuban American community was Bill Clinton — at least until the Gonzalez affair. And as Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the pro-trade embargo U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, notes, “[Clinton] had a more hard-line approach to dealing with the Cuban dictator than [George H.W. Bush].”
The Obama campaign argues that 2008 is a different landscape, in part because of a deepening generational divide on policy toward Cuba. Memories of President John F. Kennedy’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion have faded, and with Fidel Castro no longer in power, Republicans have lost a longtime antagonist who served as a rallying point for Cuban Americans.
State Rep. Luis Garcia, a Democrat who won a seat in 2006 in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana, said that if Obama keeps the debate on domestic issues he can chip away at the GOP advantage.
&lduo;Economic issues are hurting everybody, especially older Cubans,” Garcia said.
“I don’t think Cuban Americans are necessarily voting exclusively on Cuban policy anymore,” added Freddy Balsera, an Obama spokesperson on Spanish-language media and a Florida Democratic consultant. “Traditionally, [voting exclusively on Cuban policy] has been the case. What you are seeing is that the problems that are affecting average Americans, like the economy or the war in Iraq, are also affecting Cuban Americans.”
Balsera believes that Cuban American voters will decide that the 2008 race “has nothing to do with Elian Gonzalez or Greg Craig.”
“The Elian [Gonzalez] scuttlebutt was a Republican stunt, quite frankly,” he said. “I’m not denying that it was effective before, but people are wise to that trick.”
For his part, Obama has promised to reverse a Bush administration policy to cut back on money transfers to Cuba as well as visas to the island. He has also said he would meet with Cuban leader Raul Castro only after preconditions have been met that “advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.”
The McCain campaign notes that, during the 2008 Democratic primary season, Obama said he would meet with leaders of the Cuban regime and other rogue states without preconditions, though Obama later attempted to clarify his remark. McCain’s aides have also pointed out that, during Obama’s 2004 Senate campaign, he wrote on a questionnaire that he supported the normalization of relations with Cuba.
Those questions about Obama’s approach to Cuba lead Jaime Suchliki, who directs the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban Studies, to question whether the candidate will get more than 30 percent of the Cuban American vote.
“I don’t think that the Cuban American community is going to put their trust in Obama in terms of Cuban politics,” he said.