Another contemporary case of an ethnic group dominating regional policy is provided by Cuban Americans. As with Jewish Americans, the record of Cuban Americans in shaping policy toward Cuba proves that groups do not need to be large in number to succeed. Only in the 1960s did significant numbers of Cuban exiles arrive in the United States, fleeing Castro's revolution. Driven by an often all-consuming singleness of purpose concerning one overriding foreign policy issue, Cuban Americans gradually became the driving force behind Washington's unyielding hard-line policy toward the Cuban regime. Most exiles left behind their property in Cuba and settled in Florida, and a significant number among them devoted their time and resources to pressuring the U.S. government to bring down the Castro regime and restore an anticommunist government. Since this result has never occurred, the movement has continued to thrive among Cuban Americans.
Cuban exiles were close to their homeland, only ninety miles away, and expected that the Castro regime might collapse at any time, which in turn would allow them to return. Thus in their first decade in the United States, Cuban Americans were said to have a "visitor mentality," which acted against engagement in local civic activities. Cuban Americans instead promoted an intense interest in how Washington dealt with Cuba and Castro.
Other factors have also been responsible for Cuban Americans' rapidly becoming a force in shaping foreign policy. Many of the early exiles, from the upper classes, were well educated and provided leadership for the group. Continued emigration from Cuba has provided a reasonably significant population base; the 2000 census reported 1.24 million Cuban Americans. A population of over a million is enough for politicians to pay attention. Yet that number dramatizes how even a relatively small ethnic group can be effective. Cuban Americans represent less than 0.50 percent of the national population and less than 10 percent of Hispanics in the United States.
An important factor enhancing the influence of Cuban Americans as a group is their shared political ideology, and the fact that the conservative Republicans with whom they identify have controlled the presidency, and hence the levers of foreign policy implementation, during recent decades. In 1984, for example, Ronald Reagan received 90 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Dade County (which includes Miami). Since it has been estimated that 63 percent of Cuban Americans live in the Miami area, the political significance of winning the support of this group is not lost on presidential candidates. Florida is a crucial swing state in presidential elections, as the presidential race in 2000 amply demonstrated. It is simply political reality that those seeking the presidency must consider the implications of their policy toward Cuba if they wish to win Florida's electoral votes.
Another advantage Cuban Americans have had in driving policy is that there is no significant group challenging their anti-Castro agenda. In fact, the anticommunism expounded by Cuban exiles fit in easily with the Cold War rhetoric that dominated the campaigns of presidential contenders. A series of chief executives, who have been humbled by Castro's resilience, have found it politically advantageous to align with the hardline policies proposed by the exiles.
The result has been a U.S. diplomatic assault on Cuba so virulent and excessive that it has been condemned by many nations, including some that are considered staunch American allies. No other regime anywhere in the world can currently be said to suffer from as clearly prejudicial diplomatic measures on the part of the United States as the Castro regime. Since the early 1960s an embargo has denied trade and investment from the United States. Travel by U.S. citizens has been denied, although since the 1990s exceptions have been made for travelers who can justify their trips as having an educational purpose. Alone among all nations the United States denies the right of its citizens to send medicine or food to Cuba.
In 1992 passage of the "Cuban Democracy Act" prohibited U.S.-owned or -controlled subsidiaries overseas from engaging in any business with Cuba. The harshest measure of all has been the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, a tightening of the embargo that allowed U.S. citizens to sue foreign corporations that had purchased U.S. property confiscated by the Castro regime.
Almost alone in the world, the island nation of Cuba struggles with a total embargo, including medical and food products, imposed by the United States. With a gross domestic product that is less than 6 percent of what the United States spends on its military, the island hardly poses a security threat to its northern adversary. The degree of the isolation and hostility aimed at the Cuban regime is in large measure the result of a successful campaign of a relatively small but dedicated and powerful advocacy group, the 1.24 million Cuban Americans.