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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Seeking A Unified Hispanic Caucus

By Stella M. Chavez

February 17, 2002
Copyright © 2002
South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

As the first Mexican American elected to the Florida Legislature, Rep. Susan Bucher says she's a sign of things to come.

Although the Lantana Democrat didn't campaign speaking Spanish or touting her ethnic heritage, Bucher reflects the future of Florida's Hispanic politics -- neither Cuban nor Republican. Today, all but one of the 17 Hispanics in the Legislature are Cuban American or of Cuban descent, and all but three are Republicans.

Political observers say the Hispanic leadership will change because the Hispanic population is growing and becoming more diverse. These new Floridians are likely to be more moderate and Democrat and, if registered to vote, could sway future elections.

Bucher said Hispanic leaders need to understand the diversity of their constituency. While there are issues that unify Hispanics -- health care and education -- other issues touch some groups more than others.

For example, many Latin immigrants have to deal with tough immigration laws. But Puerto Ricans are already U.S. citizens, and Cubans -- unlike other Latin Americans -- can apply for permanent residency one year after arriving in the United States.

Traditionally non-Cuban Hispanics have not been as politically organized in Florida nor had the clout that Miami-Dade Cubans have. That's why it's time Hispanic leaders come together to discuss the issues that affect them, Bucher and others say.

Bucher is one of only three Hispanic Democrats in the Florida Legislature. The other two are Annie Betancourt of Miami, who is Cuban but grew up in Puerto Rico; and Bob Henriquez, a Tampa native of Spanish and Cuban descent.

While there is a legislative Cuban caucus -- largely inactive in the past year -- there's not a unified Hispanic caucus like New York, Texas and some other state have.

"It makes sense. There are only three Democrat Hispanics. They [Hispanic Republicans] have a larger volume, so I understand they have particular issues they want to gather for," Bucher said. "But collectively, I think we can really have a larger impact. If we partner with other folks, we could have a substantial impact."

The lack of a Hispanic caucus has caught the attention of the black legislative leadership, which has invited all Hispanic leaders to discuss issues of common interest, including health care, high school dropout rates and poverty rates and the number of minority prison inmates.

Betancourt said she has advocated changing the name of the Cuban legislative caucus to reflect Florida's entire Hispanic population, but the idea hasn't caught on.

"The area I represent in Kendall in west Dade is very diverse. I have a number of Peruvians, Colombians and Ecuadorians and they're all voters. When they coined the term Cuban Caucus it's really sad," Betancourt said.

Rep. Manuel Prieguez, R-Miami, chairman of the Cuban Caucus, said he has tried to be inclusive by inviting Betancourt and Henriquez to their meetings. He admits, however, his group is not very organized and has not had a formal meeting in about a year.

Despite some differences between Cubans and other Hispanics, Prieguez said Republicans can not sit back and let Democrats woo Hispanic voters.

"The Republican Party has to do a better job of attracting Hispanic voters," he said. "We need to show the rest of the country that there are good qualified Hispanic candidates that will inspire new voters to support those individuals."

But the changing demographics are cause for concern too.

"I think the Republican legislators will have to be very sensitive to the changing profile of their constituents who are going to be increasingly Democrat, non-Cuban, and much more moderate," he said.

Political observers say new census figures should be a wake-up call for Hispanic leaders.

Already, the state's Puerto Rican and Mexican population combined surpasses the total Cuban population of 833,120. Since the last Census count in 1990, the Puerto Rican population grew 95 percent to 482,027 people while the Mexican population saw a 125 percent gain to 363,925 people.

Thomas Boswell, professor of geography at the University of Miami and an expert in Hispanic migration, said it's impossible not to notice these emerging groups. In 1970, for example, Miami-Dade's Hispanic population was about 91 percent Cuban. Now it's closer to 50 percent, Boswell said.

The migration of non-Cuban Hispanics to South Florida doubled during the past decade to more than 1.8 million. In Palm Beach County, Mexicans are now the largest Hispanic group while in Broward County, Puerto Ricans make up the largest percentage of Hispanics.

Boswell said more and more immigrants from Latin America will eventually become U.S. citizens and register to vote because many countries now allow dual citizenship and the immigrants want better representation.

A Miami-based grassroots organization, the League of Latin American Voters, is trying to change the political landscape by helping Hispanics learn English, fix their immigration status and register to vote.

"We're trying to create a Hispanic coalition to participate in the political process," said Rhadames Peguero, the group's president and executive director of the Dominican American National Foundation. "Even though the Cubans have achieved it, others still have not."

Peguero's organization has sought advice from Cuban leaders in the community and in office about how to become more politically active.

"I think there is a desire to cooperate with us," Peguero said. "[The Cuban community] understands that we are a reality and that we're not going to go away. I think the ideal thing would be for these leaders to pay attention to us."

Central Florida Hispanics have already caught the attention of political leaders. Along the I-4 corridor, the Puerto Rican population has swelled and many Mexican immigrants have moved to the area to work in the orange groves.

In the 2000 election, Puerto Ricans overwhelmingly voted for Al Gore, helping Democrats win Orange County for the first time since 1948.

"What's going on there is that this traditionally Republican area of the state has become increasingly diverse in populationthat is also likely to be more Democrat," said Lance deHaven-Smith, a political science professor at Florida State University.

Within the Puerto Rican community there is talk about Eddie Diaz, a retired police officer from Orlando, running for Congress against state House Speaker Tom Feeney, an Oveido Republican.

Luis Grajales, who works in the Office of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in Orlando, said if Diaz runs, it would be a "turning point" for his community "because Puerto Ricans will have a say in Florida."

Why should it matter whether there's a Puerto Rican, Cuban, Mexican or other Hispanic leader in office? Hispanics say they need a voice in issues and laws that are of particular importance to them.

Grajales gives one example. Puerto Ricans sometimes have lengthy waiting periods to get certified to teach or work another job even though they're U.S. citizens.

The state's stricter requirements for driver's licenses is another example, said Patrick Vilar, a Colombian native who is running for the House seat currently held by Betancourt. Vilar said the new rules -- which require that the licenses of foreign-born residents must expire along with their U.S. visas -- are affecting Colombians and other immigrants. Such concerns can be brought to the forefront if there are leaders in place to address them, he said.

"We have to realize that we have to copy the success that our Cuban brothers had," Vilar said. "Rather than ask people to help our community, we want to elect the people ourselves We have gotten help from the Cuban community, but I think it's time to represent ourselves."

Henriquez, the Tampa Democratic legislator, said politicians can't take Hispanics for granted. They can't win their vote simply by speaking Spanish or broadcasting Spanish-language ads on television, he said."My concern is that purely for political gain -- either party -- just pandering to try to register people does a disservice to our cultures," he said. "They're more sophisticated than that and I think ultimately the party that speaks to the issues is what matters to them."

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