New Jersey Cubans Divided Equally Over Return of Elian
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 countys desire to normalize relations with Cuba.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Georgakas teaches courses in international relations at New York University.