Susan Milligan | The Boston Globe | [url=http://www.iht.com]http://www.iht.com[/url]
New restrictions on family visits to Cuba imposed by the Bush administration last week have provoked an emotional backlash among some Cuban-Americans in Florida, leading to fears among some Republicans that pieces of the traditional Republican voting bloc might break off and tip the battleground state to John Kerry in November.
The administration, seeking to frustrate the dictatorship of Fidel Castro, now restricts Cuban-Americans to one visit every three years to their homeland, down from one visit per year, and requires that they apply for a special license before traveling. Under pressure from anti-Castro hard-liners, President George W. Bush also cut the amount of money visiting Americans are allowed to spend in Cuba from $167 a day to $50 a day.
For the purposes of sending goods to family members or visiting, “family” has been redefined as parents and children, excluding aunts, uncles and cousins. No humanitarian exceptions will be allowed, said several Democratic and Republican members of Congress who met with State Department officials on the matter last week. The three-year restriction means a Cuban-American who attended Havana for his father’s funeral one year could not return to see a dying mother two years later.
Punishing Castro has long been popular with Cuban-American hard-liners, who have tended to vote overwhelmingly for Republicans, whom they perceive as more aggressively anti-Communist. But the new restrictions have caused an outcry from other parts of the Cuban-American population, especially new immigrants with more relatives still on the island. Democrats and some Republicans are complaining that the Bush administration is causing suffering among the people it is wooing politically.
. “Why would we be promoting something that’s so antifamily?” said Representative Jo Ann Emerson, Republican of Missouri, worrying aloud that the measures could turn some critical votes against Bush in his re-election campaign. “I think it will alienate Cuban-Americans who would otherwise be inclined to support the president, because he has been so strong against the Cuban regime.”
. Joe Garcia, executive director of the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation, called the new rules bad policy and bad politics. “We agree with 99 percent of the measures” Bush has taken against Cuba, but the new travel restrictions “have very little useful effect,” Garcia said.
. “It divides our base,” he said.
. The Cuban-American vote historically has not been courted by Democrats, who have focused their campaigns on other constituencies. But the response to the recent regulations has Democrats thinking they can attract some Cuban-American voters. While neither Democrats nor Republicans expect a wholesale switch in party loyalty, Florida’s recent history shows that even a few thousand votes could turn the state and even the election, Garcia said.
. The issue “very much” could affect the outcome of the Florida presidential race, said Representative Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona. “I think we’ve been very close to the tipping point for a while, and now we’ve crossed it.”
. Anxious Cuban-Americans crowded Miami International Airport last week, hoping to squeeze in one last trip home before the charter flights shut down, but found their flights had been suspended. The would-be travelers had wrongly assumed that a monthlong grace period, meant to permit Cuban-Americans now on the island to get back to the United States, would also allow them to make one final visit.
. Witnesses at the airport said Cuban-Americans became angry and shouted anti-Bush sentiments when they were told the charter flights had been suspended. “It is truly un-American what is happening with these restrictions. I was hurting deeply,” said Silvia Wilhelm, a Democrat and Cuban-American activist.
. “I’m going to vote this year, and I’m voting for Kerry. Sorry, Mr. President, but you are going to lose Florida for sure,” vowed Maricela Alvarez-Savigne, 56, a U.S. citizen living in Tampa who found out last week she could not make a planned trip to Cuba to visit her son, elderly mother and grandchildren.
. The State Department allowed the July travel window merely to permit U.S. residents in Cuba to make it back home, said J. Adam Ereli, a State Department spokesman. “To be honorable American citizens is to comply with the spirit of the regulations,” he said.
. A bipartisan group in Congress is pushing for an amendment to ease the recent travel rules. The amendment has as a sponsor the Democratic representative Jim Davis, the only Floridian in the House to join the effort.
. Bush supporters say Cuban-Americans will not turn against the president, predicting that they will appreciate the unwavering line the administration has taken against Castro. “I love people from places like Arizona and Massachusetts who all of a sudden think they’re experts on other people’s districts,” said Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, Republican of Florida and a leading anti-Castro member of Congress.
. While some Cuban-Americans may say they want to travel to Cuba, most will also acknowledge that it is wrong to do so, he said.
. Reed Dickens, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, said frustrated Cuban-Americans who want to go to Cuba should direct their anger at the Communist dictator. “There’s only one person to blame for the suffering of the Cuban people, and that’s Fidel Castro,” he said.
. Mark Kornblau, a spokesman for Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, said Kerry opposed the “draconian” restrictions on travel to Cuba. David Rivera, a Republican state legislator, acknowledged that some Cuban-Americans were angry about the new rules. But those in that category are much less likely to vote, he said. “If the Kerry campaign wants to make the recent Cuba travel restrictions an initiative on Bush’s candidacy among Cuban-Americans, all I can say is, bring it on.” Sergio Bendixen, a Miami-based pollster, said Kerry, like former Vice President Al Gore, was expected to lose about 90 percent of the approximately 250,000 “old guard” Cuban-Americans in South Florida. But among more moderate Cubans, a group of about 75,000 who came to the United States after 1980, Kerry leads Bush by 40 percent to 29 percent, with 31 percent undecided, Bendixen’s polling indicates.
. The tallies still put Bush ahead among Cuban-American voters as a whole. But Kerry doesn’t need to move many votes to make a deciding difference in a state like Florida, Bendixen said.