Thousands of Venezuelans residing in Florida cast ballots at their Miami consulate last month in a referendum on whether to abolish presidential term limits back home. Most voted "no," because the last thing they want is to see left-wing President Hugo Chávez run again when his second term expires in 2012. But two of the most emphatically anti-Chávez figures at the consulate weren't voters. They weren't even Venezuelan. They were some of South Florida's most prominent and outspoken Cuban-American politicians: Republican Representatives Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Chávez won his referendum handily, but the day was still a victory of sorts for Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen, who got to cultivate potential constituents with a common concern namely, the tight alliance between Chávez and their own nemesis, the Castro regime in Cuba. (See pictures of Fidel Castro stepping down.)
Florida's Republicans could use more constituents. Last November, Barack Obama, who won a surprising 57% of the state's Latino vote, became the first northern Democrat to win Florida in a presidential election in 64 years. Cuban-American leaders could use more help in their shrinking corner especially after a new Florida International University (FIU) poll showed that, for the first time, a majority of Miami Cubans oppose continuing the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Havana. And so the more than 150,000 Venezuelans now living in South Florida a third of whom have arrived since Chávez took office in 1999 have come at a good time for the state's GOP and the hard-line Cuban-American exile community.
"Venezuelans are under a lot of pressure from Chávez, who is acting more like a dictator every day," says Diaz-Balart, who accuses the Venezuelan President of human-rights abuses against opponents and of pressuring independent media that criticize his government. Ros-Lehtinen agrees, noting the similarities between the Cubans who fled the island in the wake of Fidel Castro's communist revolution 50 years ago and the Venezuelans now residing in her South Florida district. "We are very much aware of the key issues facing them," she says. Adds Ninoska Perez, director of the conservative Cuban Liberty Council in Miami, "In many ways, we Cubans see what is happening in Venezuela as the same that happened in Cuba." (See pictures of Cuba.)
The similarities may not be that strong Chávez is still a democratically elected leader who allows, among other things, a noisy opposition press. Furthermore, most of Florida's Venezuelans aren't yet U.S. citizens, so they aren't likely to be a force at the polls. But last month's referendum result will probably push many more to try and stay in this country. More and more, says Ros-Lehtinen, her office is fielding requests from Venezuelans regarding a U.S. immigration policy known as Deferred Enforced Departure, which allows those with expiring visas to extend their stay for reasons of political asylum, claiming they face dangers at home for their opposition to the Chávez government.
That trend, if those petitions are successful, could ultimately create a cache of future voters for pols like Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen a source that may only grow stronger as the ties between the Castros and Chávez grow warmer. Indeed, soon after he was first elected, the Venezuelan President asked then Cuban leader Fidel Castro for advice on how to transform his country into a socialist state for the 21st century. Chávez also began to refer to Castro as his "father." (Fidel, 82 and ailing, has since ceded power to his younger brother Raúl.) Today, oil-rich Venezuela sends Cuba discounted crude in exchange for doctors and teachers to administer Chávez's wide-ranging social programs among his nation's poor. Pedro Mena, a self-described Venezuelan opposition organizer in Miami, says the outreach by the Cuban-American lawmakers on Capitol Hill has helped bring attention to Venezuela's "inundation by the communist dictatorship in Cuba."
Florida's Cuban-American GOP lawmakers, including Lincoln Diaz-Balart's brother and fellow Congressman, Mario Diaz-Balart, are also reaching out to other Latin Americans whose home countries have recently elected leftist leaders, most notably Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador. Some contend the effort is a strategic political move aimed at consolidating their power base during a palpable shift in the dynamic of Florida's Latino community from traditionally Cuban and reliably Republican, to more Central or South American and Democratic or independent. While incumbents Ros-Lehtinen and the Diaz-Balarts all won re-election in November, their margins of victory narrowed compared with past races, when they often ran unopposed.
In 2006 36% of Florida's 1.1 million registered Latino voters were Republicans, while 31% were Democrats and 26% independents. In 2008, however, when the total rose to 1.35 million, 38% were Democrats, 33% GOP and 28% independent. A 2008 poll by the Miami-based nonpartisan group Democracia U.S.A. shows that since 2000, Latino voters in the Sunshine State registered as independent have increased about 10%, while the percentage of Florida Latinos backing Republican candidates has fallen 13 points. (Watch TIME's video about Florida's hispanic voters.)
This year's FIU poll concerning the trade embargo adamantly supported by Ros-Lehtinen and the Diaz-Balarts could be an even better indicator that the political base on which the Cuban-American lawmakers relied for so long may be eroding. In the survey, two-thirds of Miami Cuban-Americans said the U.S. should re-establish formal diplomatic ties with Cuba. "The demographics of the Cuban-American community are changing," says Guarione Diaz, president of the Cuban American National Council, referring to what appears to be a shift away from the hard line on Cuba favored by the previous Administration. "I think what we are seeing in the Cuban community [in Florida] is a complex, evolving situation."
Lincoln Diaz-Balart denounces the FIU poll as "pure baloney," saying it surveyed both Cuban Americans who are U.S. citizens and Cuban residents unable to vote. Still, Obama captured an impressive 35% of Miami's Cuban vote in large part because he pledged to undo George W. Bush's tight restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances to Cuba. It would all suggest that one of the key principles of the Miami Representatives' agendas a hard-line approach to Cuba is no longer the policy of choice in the community. And it's that kind of complexity that just might make the outreach to Venezuelans and other Latinos fleeing the left a smart form of politicking in the years to come.