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Democratic Support Growing Among Cuban-American Voters

Hispanics have registered to vote in the 2008 election in key locations at record levels. In south Florida, the numbers are up 20 percent from two years ago, and many of those new Hispanic voters are registering Democrat. In Miami, the changes mean that a long-time Republican base, Cuban-Americans, no longer dominates the political scene. VOA's Brian Wagner has this report.

Hispanic groups across the country have registered hundreds of thousands of new voters. Only days ahead of November 4, street teams like one in Miami are making sure the record number of registered Hispanic voters actually cast a ballot.

"We go to areas that are mostly Hispanic, because our focus is get those people to go out and vote," said Abraham Pereira, who is canvassing for the non-partisan Immigrant Orientation Center.
In Miami's Cuban-American community, the changes are having dramatic consequences. Early voting lines in Cuban neighborhoods have swelled with Democrats, like teacher Gloria Fabricante.

"I am very excited to vote," she said. "... because it is the first time since I became a citizen."

Miami's Cuban-American community has long been a small but influential supporter of Republicans because of the party's fierce criticism of the Communist government in Havana. The region has produced several Republican lawmakers, including Senator Mel Martinez who is campaigning for John McCain.

At a recent rally, Senator Martinez warned that Democratic Senator Barack Obama is not prepared to defend the interests of Cubans and Cuban-Americans.

"He [McCain] is not so naive as to say he would sit down with the Castro brothers in Cuba, or Hugo Chavez in Venezuela or any other murderer," Martinez said.

In spite of the rhetoric, Cuba policy has played a minor role for both presidential candidates during the campaigns. At a recent rally in Miami, Obama made only passing reference to the Communist island.

"Many people came from a country that was not giving out freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and people wanted libertad [Spanish word for freedom]," Obama said.

Like many voters this year, many Cuban-Americans are worried more about pressing economic and social issues, says Jorge Pinon, Cuba expert at the Center for Hemispheric Policy.

"Voters are focusing on what the candidates say about domestic economic and political issues," Pinon said. "... and not on how the candidates could improve relations with their home country."

Age is one key factor behind the shift among Cuban-Americans. The Republicans' hard-line stance against Havana appeals mainly to older Cubans, who arrived decades ago. Younger Cubans and recent arrivals often favor a softer stance on U.S. policy toward the island.

"Cuba policy is very important to a small subset of people in Miami," said Sean Foreman, who is a political scientist at Barry University. "...and as they get older there are less people for whom that is a primary issue."

As the generational shift continues in Miami, experts say Republicans will be forced to find new ways to appeal to young Cuban-American voters.