AFP | By Juan Castro Olivera
Cuban exiles have traditionally been a safe vote for Republican presidential candidates in the key battleground state of Florida, but in a potential boon to Democratic hopeful Barack Obama, many now agree with his call for lifting some sanctions against Cuba.
The exile community has pressured successive US administrations to take a hardline stance against Cuba’s communist regime, but travel and money transfer restrictions imposed by President George W. Bush in 2004 have frustrated many Cuban Americans.
Cuba’s seamless power transfer from Fidel Castro to his brother Raul has fueled a debate about whether it is time to change US policy toward the island after a nearly 50-year-old embargo failed to bring down the regime.
Obama, who has called US policy on Cuba a “failure,” proposes lifting the travel and remittance restrictions as a first step toward changing relations with Cuba.
“When I lived in Cuba, they didn’t let me leave the country,” said Jose, a Bank of America employee who arrived here from Havana five years ago, who gave only his first name. “Now that I live in Miami, they don’t let me go there. The two governments seem the same.”
“I think Barack Obama is right,” he said. “It’s time to show the United States is different and can help Cuba change little by little, although I don’t know if it will be possible with Raul Castro.”
Bush’s restrictions allow Cuban exiles to visit the island only once every three years and to send no more than 300 dollars to their relatives every three months.
“My mother is old,” said Lidia, a nurse at Jackson Hospital in Miami. “I will visit her this year because I don’t know if I will be able to see her alive again when I go back in three years.”
“No one should tell us when we can visit our families,” said Lidia, who has lived in the United States since 1994 and visited Cuba every year before the restrictions.
Obama has drawn fire from his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, and the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, for saying he would be willing to meet with Cuba’s new leader without preconditions.
During a debate with Clinton in Texas last week, Obama said he would be willing to meet Cuba’s new leader but stressed that the agenda should include “human rights, releasing of political prisoners, opening up the press.”
“I think that we have to shift policy. I think our goal has to be ultimately normalization,” he said. “But that’s going to happen in steps. And the first step, as I said, is changing our rules with respect to remittances and with respect to travel.”
“And this moment, this opportunity when Fidel Castro has finally stepped down, I think, is one that we should try to take advantage of,” he said.
A poll taken in September 2006, two months after Castro temporarily ceded power to Raul after falling ill, showed that 72 percent of Miami Cubans believed Washington should hold talks with Cuba if a new government showed interest in improving ties.
Florida, the decisive state in Bush’s 2000 election victory, will likely be the focus of attention again, and Obama could benefit enormously from the Cuban American vote if he is the Democratic candidate in the November 4 election.
In a worrisome sign for Republican hopes of keeping the White House, Hispanics in Florida voted massively for the Democrats in the 2006 legislative elections.
The Bush administration has insisted it would keep the embargo in place, saying Raul Castro represented no real change in Cuba.
But exile groups are backing an end to the status quo.
“Our position is that we end the travel and remittance restrictions, which directly affect Cuban families,” said Francisco “Pepe” Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, one the oldest and most influential exile groups.
“We believe that there should be the possibility of an interchange with our brothers on the island and that we are able to become agents of change,” he said, “because it appears the governments don’t have the desire to help the Cuban people.”
But Hernandez was skeptical that Obama’s plan would pan out.
“He has said that he would move bilateral relations as changes occur in Cuba, and I don’t think that this will happen with this government under Raul Castro, who is locked in his bunker,” he said.