New Jersey Cubans Divided Equally Over Return of Elian


Dan Georgakas 

A

public opinion poll released by the New Jersey City University in early February

had some unexpected findings regarding the views of Hudson County residents

about American-Cuban relations. In huge headlines  The Jersey Journal

declared: Hudson to Elian: Go Home to Your Father and Motherland. A subheading

stated: Poll also shows county’s desire to normalize relations with Cuba.

A

full 50% of those polled thought Elian should be returned to Cuba. Only 27%

thought he should stay in the US. 15% held no opinion and 7% had a third

solution of some kind. Just as surprising  47% thought the US embargo

should be lifted as against 26% that it should be kept in place and 26% with no

strong opinion. In regard to authorized direct flights from NY to Cuba, the

results were more predictable: 59% thought it was a good idea, only 17% were

against, and 24% had no opinion.  Interestingly enough if the embargo was

lifted only 38% said they would travel to Cuba for business or a vacation

against 39% who said they would not and 22% did not know. A less formal call-in

poll held by the newspaper a week earlier had 55% of the respondents in favor of

Elian returning home.

What

is startling about these findings is that Hudson County is home to the second

largest Cuban-American community in America. That community is strongly

anti-Castro and is politically powerful. Rudy Garcia, the mayor of Union City is

a Cuban refugee, and Robert Menendez, the Congressman, is a second-generation

Cuban American. Nonetheless the percentage breakdown for Cubans polled was

virtually the same as for other ethnic groups.

Without

making too much of a single poll, the views found by the pollsters indicate that

attitudes toward Cuba are softening among New Jersey Cubans and that hard-liners

have not won the support of their non-Cuban neighbors. Pertinent to that last

point is that  a few weeks after the Elian poll,  a voter satisfaction

poll found that the approval writing for Menendez had fallen from 75% to just

over 50%. Many respondents felt that Menendez was spending too much time on the

Gonzalez case. What is interesting in this regard is that his district has a

very high percentage of immigrants, the majority of whom are Latinos but not

Cubans. There was dissatisfaction for what was seen as favoritism for one ethnic

group among people who have numerous immigration problems for which

Congressional assistance is rare.

The

irony is that Menendez, aside from Cuban issues, is a liberal, who so valued by

the Minority Leader that earlier this year, he was persuaded not to run for the

Senate in order to serve in the Democratic leadership. The liberalism of

Menendez  also underscores  a difference between the Florida and New

Jersey Cuban communities. Unlike the Florida Cubans who are conservative

Republicans, the New Jersey Cubans are liberal Democrats. Rather than operating

as an independent power block, the New Jersey Cubans are part of the legendary

Hudson County Democratic machine. Menendez had been mayor of Union City before

going to Congress.

The

New Jersey poll also indicates that the organizations which purport to speak for

Cuban Americans often mask the actual sentiments in the community on many issues

and in the case of anti-Castroism on what tactics are most favored. What is just

as important is what such polls say to politicians like Menendez. Taking

forceful views on Cuba may not win as much support among Cuban Americans as

believed and  it could cost votes in other communities. Menendez has

responded to the poll by stating that non-Cubans did not understand the severity

of repression in Cuba.

Finally,

it is interesting that The Jersey Journal, the leading newspaper in the county,

has taken a de facto position of favoring Elian going home and against

continuing the present embargo on trade with Cuba. In addition to 

front-page stories on the public opinion polls, numerous news stories present

coverage of Cuba which is far more sophisticated and balanced than the stories

in the newspapers across the Hudson.

Dan

Georgakas teaches courses in international relations at New York University.