MIAMI (Reuters) - An anti-communist militant who fired a bazooka at a Polish freighter walked free with impunity in this sultry subtropical U.S. city, and Cuban Americans favoring closer ties with their homeland could once expect to be firebombed here.
But Miami has changed and the sometimes violent scenes of Cuban exile passion appear to be in the past. That could spell trouble for President George W. Bush’s Republican Party in November’s general election, opponents and analysts say.
As Miami’s hardline anti-communist tendencies start to fade, so may the party’s once-unassailable grip on congressional seats in south Florida.
“There’s a generational shift going on,” said Miami-Dade Democratic Party Chairman Joe Garcia, who sees a clear trend toward moderation as younger voters and more recent arrivals from Cuba dilute the Cuban American community.
Miami’s 650,000-strong Cuban exile community accounts for just over a quarter of the total population of the greater Miami area.
Hardcore foes of ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro have long voted for Republicans because many believe President John. F. Kennedy -- a Democrat -- betrayed them during the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, failing to provide the exile force with promised air cover.
The hardliners once dominated local politics, ensuring that U.S. policy toward Havana remained a central concern and earning Miami the title of the only U.S. city with its own foreign policy.
Older exiles who oppose any opening to Cuba still wield considerable influence and Sen. John McCain -- now the likely Republican presidential nominee -- was among the Republican candidates who courted their vote in Miami’s “Little Havana” district before Florida’s party nominating contest on January 29.
The grip of hardliners on the political scene may be loosening, however, as other issues jostle for the limelight.
Along with California, Florida has been hardest hit by the current U.S. housing slump. Its sinking economy, sky-high insurance rates, health care and mortgage foreclosures are now of more concern to most voters, including a generation of younger Cuban Americans, than democratic reforms in Cuba, analysts say.
‘FOREIGN VERSUS DOMESTIC’
“It’s really over foreign versus domestic,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “Younger generations, younger Cubans, are very much more influenced by domestic policy than foreign policy,” she said.
The change can be seen in how the city has reacted to some recent events involving Cuba.
A battle for custody of a girl between her Cuban father and Miami-based Cuban-American foster parents sparked no mass protests, as occurred in 2000 when U.S. authorities sent shipwrecked Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez out of the care of Miami relatives to live with his father in Cuba.
When anti-Castro militant Luis Posada Carriles was released from a U.S. jail last year, despite accusations he masterminded the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner, the only people who paraded in victory in Miami were a few dozen Bay of Pigs veterans.
In big challenges to the Republicans, Democrat Raul Martinez, a Cuban American and popular former mayor of Hialeah on the outskirts of Miami, has announced he will run this year for the congressional seat of South Florida Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
And Joe Garcia is running for the Republican congressional seat of Lincoln’s brother, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.
The Diaz-Balarts, nephews by marriage of Fidel Castro, have based their careers largely on support for U.S. sanctions against Cuba and fierce opposition to Castro.
“I think people in south Florida, especially the Cuban-Americans, have gotten tired of the (anti-Castro) rhetoric,” said Martinez, who has branded Lincoln Diaz-Balart “a one issue candidate.”
“They see that the economy, the health system, the housing issues, the mortgages and all of the day-to-day issues are everyday issues that they’re getting hurt on,” he said.
Lincoln Diaz-Balart has accused Martinez of supporting “unilateral concessions to the Cuban dictatorship” because of his view that U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba should be eased.
Fellow Republican and Cuban American lawmaker Ileana Ros-Lehtinen cautioned against banking on political change. “I think that the (Republican) base is still strong in our community,” she said.
Cuban American support could be crucial for Republicans in a state that gave Bush his wafer-thin victory in 2000.
“Unless they (Republicans) address the issues that are important to this community they may be in for, unfortunately, a rude awakening,” said Jorge Mas Santos, head of the once powerful but now lower-key Cuban American National Foundation.
Editing by Michael Christie and Frances Kerry