x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

In Florida, US Republican candidates tout foreign policies

Cuba and Jewish vote critical in Florida where Republican candidates' woo voters in a key battleground state.

MIAMI, FLORIDA // The conversation outside the walk-up window at Café Versailles, in Miami's Little Havana neighbourhood, has a habit of turning to politics. The men in the mostly male crowd are familiar to each other and the Cuban espressos flow freely from a staff on first-name basis with their customers.

"This is where all the politicians meet and set the world right," said regular Antonio Villasuso, 71, gesturing with both hands to indicate the quotation marks around "politicians". Here, he added with a grin, "everybody knows everything about everything".

The paid politicians come to Little Havana, too. It was at Café Versailles that Newt Gingrich, the former leader of the House of Representatives and now a Republican presidential candidate, this month promised a US-supported "Cuban spring" uprising against the communist government "that is even more exciting than the Arab Spring".

With the Republican presidential primary on Tuesday, both Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, who is currently leading Mr Gingrich in opinion polls, and Rick Santorum, the former governor of Pennsylvania, have come to the centre of Miami's 850,000-strong Cuban community to appeal to a community that is overwhelmingly Republican. Cuban-Americans comprise 12 per cent of the registered Republican voters in Florida.

Dario Moreno, a professor of political science at Florida International University, said the candidates have to tell Cuban-American voters that they do not plan to ease the sanctions the US has imposed on Cuba since 1960.

"It's important for candidates to come and assure the Cuban-American community that they support the embargo and they are not going to appease the Cuban government," he said.

With Florida also home to a 630,000-strong Jewish community, the candidates' support for Israel is also key to winning a state that will be a crucial battleground in November's presidential elections. With 29 electoral votes, determined by the state's population, up for grabs, Florida offers more than 10 per cent of what candidates need to win the presidency.

As Florida has been the US state hardest hit by the housing crisis, the economy is the most pressing issue to many voters.

But foreign policy is the most obvious way to appeal to ethnic and religious groups that often coalesce around single issues, said Terri Fine, professor of political science at the University of Central Florida.

"Israel is very much an issue in the primary," Ms Fine said. The focus of Republican candidates "has not been about economic conservatism, even though that is a common opinion among Jewish Republicans. They focused on their personal connection and strong military support for Israel."

Ron Paul, the Texas congressman, is the exception among the Republican candidates, and not just on Israel. In addition to vowing to end all US foreign aid, including to Israel, he has stated he wants to open diplomatic relations with Cuba. Mr Paul has not held a single campaign event in the state and is not spending any money on advertising.

But a win in Florida could provide significant momentum to the two frontrunners, and Mr Romney and Mr Gingrich have not spared any effort to appeal to Florida's Latino voters. Mr Romney has proposed setting up policies to promote economic opportunity in Latin America and has promised to reinstate 2004 travel restrictions to Cuba that were lifted by the administration of Barack Obama, the US president.

Mr Gingrich has said he will get tough with Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, whose trade policy with Cuba goes against the US embargo.

Down at Café Versailles, they have heard these promises before.

No one believes the talk about regime change in Cuba anymore, said Lois Jacas, 59. He said that whoever wins the Republican primary is likely to win the cafe crowd's vote in November.

His generation of Cuban-Americans has voted Republican since the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion in which a CIA-trained force of Cuban exiles failed to overthrow the Cuban government when Democrat John F Kennedy was the US president.

okarmi@thenational.ae