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September 12, 2011

For politicians seeking public office, a stop at the iconic Cafe Versailles is a must.

This Little Havana institution has become a symbol of the strength of the Hispanic vote. Here, Cuban exiles have turned their conservative stance against the Castro regime into a political force to be reckoned with in U.S. politics.

“It forces politicians to learn Spanish,” said journalist Julio Cesar Camacho, “even if it’s a few words.”

During a Republican debate last week, Rep. Michele Bachmann mentioned her visit to Versailles as she tried to establish a rapport with Hispanic voters. It was one of the first references to Versailles in the nascent presidential campaign season, but it likely won’t be the last.

According to the 2010 census, the Latino community is the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials estimates that, out of more than 50 million Hispanics in the United States, 24 million will be eligible to vote next year.

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In South Florida, many of those voters are Latinos who are longtime residents of the region, but have been hoping to return to their countries of origin once the political and economic situation of the region changed, Florida International University Professor Daniel Alvarez said.

As time goes on, those families are becoming increasingly active in politics — taking a page from the Cuban-American political playbook, though not necessarily following their political views.

In Miami, Alvarez said, 60% of non-Cuban Hispanics are Democrats.

Republican activist Fabio Andrade agrees. The Colombian-American, who chaired John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign in Miami, said new voters of Colombian descent are registering Democrats at a 2-to-1 ratio. The tea party is part of the reason, he said.

“Some of the tea party views are too radical for Hispanics,” he said.

That sentiment is echoed by Oswaldo Munoz, the publisher of El Venezolano newspaper.

“The tea party message is not one Hispanics want to hear, nor do we want to be the target of some of the ideas they propose,” Munoz said.

According to Alvarez, those ideas revolve around one issue that crosses country loyalties: immigration.

“Argentines, Colombians, Nicaraguans … they all still identify themselves as immigrants, and the status of the immigrant is in peril right now due to the right-leaning tendencies in the country,” he said.

But conservative Hispanic politicians fared very well in the last election — some of them buoyed by the support of tea party loyalists.

Raul Labrador, now a congressman from Idaho, was a voice for the tea party during the debt ceiling debate.

In New Mexico, Susana Martinez became the first Latina governor in the U.S. with the support of Sarah Palin and tea party activists.

In a recent interview, Martinez told CNN the tea party has fiscal policies that are good for the country.

“I think the tea party makes us think different and gives us more options from where to choose when it comes to electing candidates,” Martinez said.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio also rode the tea party wave that swept Republicans into Congress last year. But he has been criticized for his stance against illegal immigration, and Alvarez said he’s seen Rubio trying to distance himself from the tea party.

Next year’s elections will be a key indicator of whether tea party policies will drive Latino voters into Democrats’ arms for years to come, Alvarez said.

But Democrats in South Florida aren’t claiming victory just yet.

Joe Garcia, a Cuban-American Democrat who lost a congressional bid last year, said conservative Cubans are still the dominant force in South Florida, and they will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

Source: CNN