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Fidel Castro’s Legacy Hangs Over Florida And U.S. Politics

Though Fidel Castro, the communist revolutionary who died Friday at age 90, hadn’t served as Cuba’s leader for nearly a decade, his presence never dissipated from the island’s politically charged air. Nor had he vanished from U.S. foreign policy or the minds of Cuban-American voters in South Florida, though the political leanings of that group have shifted in recent years.

For decades, Castro was the Western face of communism in the minds of many U.S. politicians and voters. Economic sanctions and embargoes placed on Cuba by the U.S. after Castro ascended to power have endured 11 U.S. presidential administrations, even as Castro’s influence on the island dwindled. When Castro officially resigned the presidency in 2008, half of U.S. residents believed his stepping down wouldn’t change the situation for people in Cuba, according to a Gallup poll. Thirty-seven percent thought things would get better, and just 6 percent felt they would get worse.

Some things did change, however, including numerous economic adjustments made by Castro’s younger brother Raúl, the current president (Cubans are now allowed to buy and sell homes, and operate some small businesses). It wasn’t until the last couple of years that U.S. policy toward the island began to change, as President Obama removed the nation from the U.S. list of state supporters of terrorism and re-established diplomatic ties. A pre-election promise from Donald Trump to repeal the executive action that removed Cuba from the list may have won him support from some Cuban-Americans. However, younger voters of Cuban descent and the U.S. as a whole largely favor re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba, as do most Cubans.

Since Cuban immigrants began to arrive in South Florida in large numbers starting with the 1980 Mariel boatlift, Cuban-Americans have been an important voting bloc in the perennial swing state and have been influential in foreign and domestic policy. Legislation passed in 1966 in the wake of Fidel Castro’s ascendance to power gives special status to Cuban immigrants to the United States. The fast-tracked process has made it quicker and easier for them to become U.S. citizens (and thus eligible voters) than other immigrants or refugees. That helped build a concentration of political power in southern Florida in support of the enduring U.S. embargo and an antagonistic foreign policy toward the island nation.

Only 5 percent of eligible Hispanic voters nationwide are Cuban, according to the Pew Research Center. With Latino voters making up nearly 12 percent of eligible voters nationwide, Cuban-Americans represent a relatively small number of voters and a small percentage of the overall electorate. And the percentage of Latinos in the U.S. who have Cuban heritage has fallen over the last 30 years, as the number of immigrants from Central and South America has increased, even in South Florida.

But while they make up a relatively small percentage of overall voters, Cuban-American voters have had a notable influence on elections. In 2000, the evidence suggests that Cuban-Americans were a major factor in George W. Bush’s win. In 1996, Democratic candidate Bill Clinton carried Miami-Dade County, which has been about one-third Cuban since the 1990s, by 19 points. Four years later, Democrat Al Gore won there by just 6 points; surrounding counties and the state overall shifted Republican by a smaller margin. Gore ultimately lost Florida’s electoral votes and the election. There’s also evidence that the Cuban-American voting bloc helped Gov. Rick Scott win re-election in 2014 in a race that saw low voter turnout in South Florida.

Trump, on the other hand, probably would have won Florida even without the support of Cubans; as swing voters in a swing state, Cuban-Americans in South Florida were considered a crucial group in the 2016 election, but they did not play a deciding role. Two of the three Cuban-American, Republican members of the House from South Florida did not endorse Trump (though Sen. Marco Rubio did, if somewhat reluctantly, after he dropped his own presidential bid), and while there has been debate over the voting patterns of Latinos this election, various exit polls suggest that Cuban-American voters supported the Republican nominee by a narrow margin. That margin appears to be up only slightly from the 2012 election, when Cuban-American voters supported Republican Mitt Romney over Obama, 52 percent to 48 percent, according to Democratic pollster Bendixen & Amandi International. Cuban-Americans would have needed to vote for Hillary Clinton by an impossibly wide margin to swing the election her way, and Trump probably would have won the state if they hadn’t voted at all.

Still, Cubans continue to play an outsize role in U.S. politics, not only as a voting bloc but also as politicians. There are currently at least eight senators and representatives of Cuban descent in Congress. Politics, not only in Cuba, but also in the U.S., were forever changed by Fidel Castro.

CORRECTION (Nov. 29, 5 p.m.): A previous version of this article misstated the number of Cuban-American, Republican members of the House from South Florida. There are three, not two.

Harry Enten contributed reporting.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester reports on public health, food and culture for FiveThirtyEight.

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