Rising Hispanic vote shifts focus off Cuba
BY CASEY WOODS
Carlos Pereira grinned widely as he stood in the outgoing tide of newly sworn-in citizens leaving a Miami naturalization ceremony. So far, he had registered 328 people, mostly from Latin American countries. Only 62 of them were from Cuba.
''This year is exceptional because there is so much diversity,'' said Pereira, a native of Honduras who heads the Miami-based Center for Immigrant Orientation. ``This change is exciting because it will bring a diversity to political power.''
The trend that Pereira sees in the voter registration trenches mirrors the one pollsters are seeing statewide: There is a new Hispanic majority in Florida, and it is not Cuban.
According to numbers from the Democratic polling firm Bendixen and Associates, 44 percent of the state's 1.1 million Hispanic voters hail from the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and other Latin American countries -- slightly more than the Cubans, at 40 percent. In 2000, non-Cuban voters represented 19 percent of the Hispanic vote, Bendixen polling shows.
Hispanic Democrats also now outnumber Hispanic Republicans in Florida, making what had long been a relatively predictable voter population for politicians much more fluid.
''In order to survive here, candidates are going to have to keep the Cuban line, but also have to increasingly appeal to the non-Cuban Hispanics by catering to their issues,'' said Florida International University pollster Dario Moreno.
The newcomers, many of them just entering the U.S. political fray, are poised to exert unprecedented influence in this election year as the unquestioned dominance of the traditionally Republican Cuban voting block begins to wane.
''Over the last 10 years, there have been significant voter registration efforts targeting these groups, and we're seeing dividends of that at the ballot box,'' said Fernand Amandi of Bendixen & Associates, which recently signed on to do polling work for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. ``They are going to continue to assert themselves politically and to influence elections on local, state and national level for years to come.''
Despite their growing might in numbers, these other Hispanic voting communities are a political unknown. Although many are registering as Democrats, there are certain issues related to their homelands that may lead them to vote differently than their new voter registration cards suggest.
ISSUE OF FREE TRADE
One such issue is the free-trade agreement with Colombia -- supported by congressional Republicans and stalled by Democrats -- which is pushing many Colombian-American Democrats to question their party affiliation.
The non-Cuban Hispanic voters are in varying stages of local political organization. Many of them -- including Colombians, Venezuelans and Dominicans -- have organizations agitating for more political power.
The Dominican community has a sophisticated network of political operators strategically placed across the state, with phone banks that marshal 30 volunteers to call likely voters. They organize political caravans that wind through South Florida neighborhoods.
The problem, according to many local Dominican activists: Their energy is focused on the wrong elections.
Those highly developed political machines are dedicated to races on their island patria, not here in the United States. A group is setting out to change that with the creation of a new political organization called the U.S. Dominican Political Action Committee, or USDOPAC.
''If it's always the same people in power over and over, democracy dies,'' said Rosa Kasse, 59, president of the Hispanic Coalition and executive director of the political action committee. ``We believe fresh minds and fresh spirit will inject new power into the system.''
The political action committee's leadership includes a mix of Democrats like Kasse and Republicans. The organizers also invited local leaders of the Dominican political parties to be on the board to avoid a perceived alliance with any of them.
So far, they have backed a Dominican candidate's unsuccessful run for Miramar City Council and are organizing meetings with candidates.
The community registers Democrat by nearly a 3-to-1 margin, according to voter registration numbers the PAC requested from the Miami-Dade County Board of Elections from 2006, the most recent numbers available. Although many supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries, there is widespread support for Obama.
INSPIRED BY OBAMA
Richard Charman, a Dominican who became a U.S. citizen in 1985, had never been motivated to register to vote -- until now.
''I was inspired by Obama's personal story, his dedication and his interest in serving the communities of this nation,'' said Charman, 52.
After Charman registered on May 13, he created an online neighborhood group he calls Iam4OBAMA -- Neighbors of Allapattah to organize voters in his area. He has put his computer-consulting business on hold while he dedicates himself solely to Obama's campaign for president.
''I have changed my priorities because Obama is a one-time phenomenon, and that phenomenon is happening now,'' he said.
The Venhamer Clinic, in political terms, has led a lonely existence until recently. In its first five years of serving low-income residents, many of them Venezuelan, it received a visit from only one politician: a candidate for Doral mayor. After he was elected, he never returned.
In recent months, however, the clinic has become increasingly popular. Both U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Republican, and his Democratic opponent, former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, visited in June. Joe Garcia, the former Miami-Dade Democratic Party chairman who is running against U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, came by last month.
''The politicians are finding out now that we are a good group of voters, and they need us,'' said Ernesto Ackerman, one of the clinic's board members.
Ackerman heads another organization, the nonpartisan Independent Venezuelan American Citizens, or IVAC, that has organized a series of meetings between the congressional candidates and Venezuelan-American voters.
Their sudden popularity is a sign that in these congressional races, the non-Cuban Hispanic vote is crucial.
''The emergence of this vote has provided the opportunity for the Republican incumbents to be challenged,'' Amandi said.
The Venezuelan community has expanded rapidly in the past eight years, as successive waves of immigrants have fled the leftist policies of President Hugo Chávez. Their cause has been adopted by many Cubans, who see a shared enemy in Chávez, an ally and financial supporter of Cuba's Castro regime. Many Venezuelans have returned the affinity in local politics, leaning toward the Republican Party.
In the presidential election, even many Venezuelan Democrats are struggling with the Obama's candidacy. He has angered many Venezuelans by saying he would meet with hostile leaders, like Chávez.
Venezuelans also find his mantra of progressive change echoes messages that an idealistic Chávez used to get elected a decade ago.
'Chávez appeared with that one word `change,' and people didn't investigate him properly, and then we ended up with this disaster,'' said Kendall resident and IVAC board member Carmen Teresa Luengo. ``The majority of Venezuelans here relive that experience when they hear Obama.''
Republican presumptive nominee John McCain, Luengo said, is the clear choice.
''He is a man with great experience on the national security front, and we need that right now,'' she said.
Colombian Jeannette Varela, a Democrat, had her candidate in the Democratic primaries. Nearly 150 people, many of them well-known Colombian Democrats, came to her Star Island home for a fundraiser in support of Hillary Clinton's candidacy.
With Clinton's exit from the race, Varela feels bereft. Both McCain and Obama supporters have asked her to have fundraisers, but she hasn't committed to either candidate.
''We Colombians, Chileans, Argentinians and other Latin American groups all pay taxes and yet politically we don't have any representation,'' she said. ``We feel abandoned.''
Varela is a bellwether for a larger trend in the Colombian community.
Nearly 48 percent of Colombians register Democrat, according to polling done by a community political organization.
But many are deeply troubled by the party's blocking of the Colombian Free Trade Agreement.
The treaty has stalled in Congress because Democrats have raised concerns about its impact on American workers and human-rights violations in the South American country.
Both Obama and Clinton had raised the same objections, but Varela said Clinton had personally assured her that they could sit down after the election and discuss the treaty -- a commitment that gave her ''hope.'' She says she has not heard the same assurance from Obama.
''Everyone has noticed that the opposition to the agreement is just a political maneuver that the Democrats were doing just to hurt [President George] Bush,'' Varela said. ``I have strong Democrat convictions, but that doesn't mean I'm blind and don't see what's happening.''
Meanwhile, McCain has courted the Colombian community and those who support the free-trade agreement. He ran a radio advertisement in support of it. He also visited the South American nation last month.
IMPRESSED BY TRIP
''That trip was historic, because I can't remember any U.S. presidential candidate going to Latin America during the campaign,'' said Nelson Hincapie, also a local Democrat who is considering McCain. ``I'm on the fence about who to vote for, but I'm leaning toward McCain because of the free-trade issue. I have too many friends who depend on it.''
Despite McCain's draw for many Democrats, political activist Carlos Cabrera believes the fence-sitters will come around on the Democratic Party.
Colombians ''are just beginning the process with Obama. They will eventually back him, because the Democratic Party is the party of immigrants,'' he said.
U.S. Census numbers show that Colombians, who number more than 150,000 in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, are second only to Cubans in South Florida, both in population numbers and in their rate of naturalizations in the last decade.
Both McCain and Obama spent ample time on Colombia and Venezuela in Latin American policy speeches they gave in Miami in May.
''I am very optimistic about what is happening in terms of the diversity
of South Florida politics,'' said McCain's South Florida campaign co-chairman,
Fabio Andrade, who is the first non-Cuban Hispanic to hold that post for
a Republican presidential candidate. ``Five years ago, the only issue national
candidates talked about was Cuba.''