Estefans open Miami home to Obama, stirring debate
| April 16, 2010 9:00 PM
MIAMI - In the realm of Cuban musicians and entertainers, Gloria Estefan has been revered as the community's first daughter, the child of exiles whose songs of love and country are a staple in any music collection.
Now the songstress is taking on a new role: On Thursday, she and husband Emilio Estefan hosted President Barack Obama at their Miami Beach home for a Democratic National Committee fundraiser.
It's a political act that has drawn both condemnation and admiration in this traditionally Republican community, where the younger generation has been trending more Democratic.
"They represented our community with much dignity and class throughout their entire career," said Val Prieto, founder of the conservative Cuban-American blog, Babablu. Now, Prieto says, he's disappointed.
"It just leaves a real bad taste in my mouth and a lot of the people in the community," he said.
Some have dismissed her as a traitor to the Cuban cause. Others praise her for grabbing the president's ear on an issue that remains at the forefront of South Florida politics, five decades after the 1959 revolution.
Whatever the interpretation, they are the most famous Cuban Americans to come out in support of a Democrat - an act that many say is emblematic of a community whose political orientations have been shifting.
"The fact that they're openly engaging the Democratic president, I think, speaks to the shift that is taking place in the Cuban electorate itself," said Fernand Amandi, executive vice president of Bendixen & Amandi, a public opinion research and consulting firm in Miami that has surveyed Cuban Americans.
A 2008 poll of 800 randomly selected Cuban-Americans found that younger and more recent immigrants were less likely to be Republican than older generations: Among those 18 to 44, 42 percent identified as Republican, compared to 66 percent of those age 65 and older. A majority in the younger age bracket said they voted for Obama.
And while Latin pop singer Juanes' recent "Peace Without Borders" concert in Havana drew attention to the most radical segments of the Cuban American community who condemned the concert, another poll found that a majority had a favorable opinion of the event.
"The perception in the United States is that this is a monolithic community," said Jaime Suchlicki, an expert on Cuban affairs at the University of Miami. "That is not accurate. This is a very diversified community."
The Thursday fundraiser reflects a growing relationship between the couple and Obama. Gloria Estefan sang at the White House for a Latin musical heritage event. Emilio Estefan was appointed by the president to a committee that will study a potential National Museum of the American Latino.
Freddy Balsera, a friend and Democratic Party consultant, said the Estefans are registered independents who voted for and support Obama. He noted that they also had good relationships with both previous Bush administrations.
The Estefans were both born in Cuba and together became musical luminaries, winning Grammy awards and fans across the U.S. with crossover hits like "Conga" and "Words Get in the Way," in addition to helping the careers of other artists.
"I think from Gloria and Emilio's perspective, they're at a point in their lives where patriotism matters a lot," Balsera said. "And the issue of human rights and democracy in Cuba is a tremendous priority for them."
The Estefans have become increasingly politically active. Last month, Gloria Estefan led a march through the streets of Miami in support of the Ladies in White, a group of wives and family members of political prisoners in Cuban jails. The march attracted thousands and led to similar events in New York City and Los Angeles.
Balsera described their activism as "pure," saying neither is interested in political office.
While other Cuban musicians have stepped into the political waters that divide the U.S. and Cuba - Celia Cruz and Olga Guillot supported similar causes - none have had a similar level of success in raising awareness and drawing supporters, said Jaime Suchlicki, an expert on Cuban affairs at the University of Miami.
"And the reason is one, it was Gloria Estefan," Suchlicki said. "Number two, there is a belief that things are getting hot in Cuba."
But the fundraiser - a $30,400-per couple cocktail reception - has hit a nerve.
"Mention the Estefans and many no longer conjure up images of freedom and catchy tunes," columnist Jackie Bueno Sousa wrote in The Miami Herald. "Now - rightly or wrongly - many associate the name with Obamacare, abortion, powerful unions, creation of a welfare state."
Prieto recalled attending the Estefans' early performances at weddings and birthday parties, and said he knows all of their songs by heart. What upsets him is not just that they're supporting Obama, but the Democratic party.
"I was incredibly disappointed," Prieto said.
Lisandro Perez, a sociology professor at Florida International University in Miami said the Estefans have usually been on "the right side" of Cuban American politics.
The fundraiser is a small step out of line. "But if what you want to do is to influence a president to maintain current Cuban policy, it's smart," Perez said.
Some say that's a viewpoint more are starting to agree with.
"Talking to folks and interacting with folks around town, it is a very, very small but loud minority that has been critical of this," Balsera said. "I think generally speaking people are proud the president is coming to our city, and that he's going to be in the home of a very well respected Cuban American family."