By WES ALLISON, St Petersburg Times Staff Writer
MIAMI - America’s Cuban policy, centered as it is around the exile community here, has always been guided by two often-competing interests: the desire to strangle dictator Fidel Castro, while supporting the family members left behind.
Now, a new plan by the Bush administration is straining the balance between the two, further limiting how often Cuban-Americans may visit relatives in Cuba and how much money they can send them.
Some Cubans say the provisions are testing their long, strong ties with the Republican Party, and warn the election-year announcement, designed to maintain Cuban support for President Bush, could bring disfavor instead.
Republicans and Democrats alike agree Cuban dissatisfaction with those aspects of the policy, which otherwise is popular, won’t cause a major defection. But some Democrats believe it offers an opening to win Cuban votes for the party’s presumptive nominee, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry - or at least to keep votes from President Bush.
And in a state as evenly divided as Florida, every vote counts.
“I was a Republican. Today, I am a Democrat,” said Carlos Chediak, who voted for Bush in 2000. “I am 75 years old. To have to wait three years to go to Cuba to see my grandson? He lost many thousands of votes here.”
Under the new policy, unveiled by the White House this month, Cuban-Americans may visit relatives in Cuba just once every three years, rather than every year. The definition of relatives also now excludes aunts, uncles and cousins, an affront to many Cubans’ generous definition of family.
The provisions take effect June 1. Alvaro Fernandez, a Cuban American Democrat who organized a rally against them on Thursday, said the new rules are out of step for an administration that professes to care about family values. The rally drew about 200 people - Democrats and Republicans, young and old - and they cheered as he urged the administration to reconsider a “measure that if applied will condemn some family members from ever seeing each other again.”
In the audience, Gloria Menendez, 51, who immigrated in 1980, joined in the chanting of “Nunca nunca nunca” (“Never, never, never.”) She said she still has a daughter, grandson and other relatives in Cuba and tries to visit often. She and her husband are registered Republicans who voted for Bush in 2000, but now plan to vote for Kerry. “He is hurting my rights to visit my family,” she said.
Polls show most Cuban-Americans support sanctions toward Castro’s communist regime, even though the same polls show most don’t believe the embargo is working.
Florida claims about a half-million Cuban-Americans. Generally, their leaders praise Bush’s new plan for promoting democracy in Cuba by nearly quadrupling U.S. aid to dissidents, to $27-million.
It also aims to fund programs to reach Cuban youth and nongovernmental organizations supporting human rights in Cuba, and calls for using military planes to broadcast U.S. produced TV and radio programming to the island.
Almost point for point, the plan followed recommendations by the Cuban American National Foundation, the exile group’s strongest and oldest lobby, whose president is a major Bush fundraiser. But executive director Joe Garcia said the group did not recommend the new travel restrictions, and it’s unclear why the Bush administration included them.
“On a purely political basis, I don’t see the advantage here,” Garcia said over espresso at the Versailles restaurant, a landmark in Little Havana. He flagged down a waiter, a young man who fled Cuba less than two years ago and whose family is still there. He wants to visit them.
“I don’t know that this is the opening that changes the dynamic, but in a close election any mistake can be fatal,” Garcia said. “If one-half of 1 percent of Cuban Americans didn’t show up (in 2000), we’d talking about Al Gore right now, instead of George Bush.”
The Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami conducts annual surveys of Cuban American attitudes. The latest, released this month before the White House announced the new restrictions, found that 30 percent were undecided about the presidential election.
Damian Fernandez, the institute’s director, said that does not bode well for the president. Some 77 percent of South Florida Cubans have family back home, and about 100,000 of the 125,000 Americans who legally visit Cuba each year are Cubans, he said.
Most use the trips to ferry medicine, clothing and food. The new Bush rules would limit their luggage to 44 pounds and cut the amount each family could send to Cuba from $1,200 to $900 annually. More than half the Cuban Americans here send cash to relatives on the island, a total of $100-million per year.
“I think the wise policy for anyone, and let’s say Kerry is reading these lines, is to be tough on the government, but be soft on the people,” Fernandez said. “Let families travel, let people send their money, let people connect.”
In a state as divided as Florida, which Bush won by 537 votes, Republicans and Democrats alike are working to shave points from each other’s core constituencies, in hopes of making the difference in another razor-thin election.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton got an estimated 30 percent of the Cuban vote, enough to help him take Florida from Republican Bob Dole - the first time a Democrat won the state in 20 years. It helped that he had signed the Helms-Burton Act, which punished U.S. companies for doing business in Cuba.
In 2000, however, after the Clinton administration returned castaway Elian Gonzalez to Cuba, Gore won only about 17 percent of the Cuban vote.
And Jorge Mas Santos, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, raised $250,000 for the Bush campaign.
Typical of Florida Democrats, opinions about how to tap the Cuban-American vote vary. Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe said Bush’s policy puts the Cuban vote in play, but others blanch at making it an issue. Just bringing it up, some say, risks energizing the conservative, longtime exiles who vote Republican en masse.
Plus, Kerry would have to offer an alternative, something he’s not yet done beyond meeting with exiles and expressing support for the current embargo. He also is open to Republican attack because in the past he has criticized the embargo.
“To any action there is a reaction,” said Sergio Bendixon, a pollster and senior consultant to the New Democrat Network, which is running Spanish-language TV ads in much of the state. Bendixon, a Cuban-American, doesn’t think the new restrictions will change many minds, and points to his latest poll numbers, from late April: Among those born in Cuba, 80 percent back Bush, 12 percent back Kerry, and 8 percent are undecided.
Among Cuban-Americans born here, who tend to be less fervent about Castro, 54 percent back Kerry, and 33 support Bush.
“When you look at numbers like that, that’s why I don’t think there’s much to hope for” making an issue over Cuba policy, he said.
The new family travel restrictions has highlighted a growing rift between older emigres and those who came more recently, or who were born here, residents say. Among the coffee shops, palm trees and red tile roofs of Little Havana, reaction seems to depend largely on the age of the person you ask.
Truck driver Rudy Aguilar, 25, who plans to vote for Kerry, said he should be able to visit his uncles in Cuba, and he believes the president “is out of step. A lot of young people don’t really approve of what he’s doing.”
Under the shade at the Gen. Maximo Gomez Domino Park, old men in Marlins and Yankees caps chew stumpy cigars and praise President Bush over the clatter dominoes. One man ventures that it’s unfair to allow American farmers to sell poultry and other food to the regime, then cut Cuban Americans’ ability to help their relatives.
But several others wave him off.
“I think the new law is correct, because the people here send every year $100-million, and it keeps Castro in power,” said Raul Llanes, 75, who came to Florida in 1969. Heads bob in agreement.
These are the people U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, says will send Bush back to the White House. He said his constituents believe short-term pain is worth the long-term gain of having a clear, tough policy against the dictator.
Jeb Bush, who speaks fluent Spanish and calls Miami home, also is wildly popular here, and Diaz-Balart said he helps the president greatly. Many Democrats acknowledge that’s true.
On Thursday, to mark the 102nd anniversary of Cuban independence from Spain, President Bush vowed to implement each provision his commission recommended.
But Jorge Mursuli, 42, a Miami Cuban and interim national director of Mi Familia Vota, a nonpartisan voter registration project aimed at Hispanics, said the travel restrictions may simply add to the cynicism many American-Cubans feel toward politics. Every four years, the politicians come calling. “What everyone is good at doing, both parties, is playing on our emotions, our connections to our family,” he said.
His uncle back in Cuba, his father’s brother, is old and ill, and his father, a diehard Republican, says he will ignore the three-year rule and see him at least once more before he dies.
His father also says he would rather die himself than vote for a Democrat, so come election time, he plans to vote for no one.