By CURT ANDERSON | Associated Press Writer
Growing up in New York, Mayda Prego thought of Cuba as a faraway island with a communist government that would probably gradually wither away. Now that she’s visited her ancestral homeland, she’s struck by its vibrancy and vitality.
And like a lot of younger Cuban-Americans, some of whom arrived in the 1980 Mariel boatlift, Prego said she doesn’t understand why the United States persists in its hard line against the government of Fidel Castro, including a broad economic embargo and tight restrictions on travel to the island.
“I’ve noticed there are a lot of people who think along more moderate lines,” said Prego, a 38-year-old attorney who moved to Miami in 1996. “The younger people, even when they are parroting their parents, they are doing it out of respect for their parents, not because they believe it.”
Most of the 125,000 immigrants who came to the United States in the boatlift 25 years ago have settled in South Florida. Along with later arrivals and a younger generation of U.S. born Cuban-Americans, such as Prego, they represent a challenge to the hard-line approach for dealing with Castro.
Because of their more-recent connection to the island, some Mariel immigrants and newer arrivals oppose tougher U.S. restrictions on visits to Cuba and on the amount of money they can send to relatives, arguing those policies hurt their families. But hard-liners say relaxed policies help prop up the Castro government.
“The Mariel immigrants changed the terrain in Miami,” said Silvia Wilhelm, executive director of the moderate group Puentes Cubanos, or Cuban Bridges. “They had a completely different perspective of what was going on inside Cuba. They started a debate. Do we go back? Are we traitors if we go back?”
But their influence has not been significant enough to change U.S official policy toward Cuba or the GOP-leaning Cuban-American vote. The policy and political landscape largely reflect the views of the older generation - many of whom were wealthy Cubans who fled after the Castro revolution in 1959.
Despite cracks of moderation, most politicians say the broad consensus of Cuban-Americans is for a hard-line approach to dealing with Castro to bring about democratic changes on the communist island.
“What’s right for the Cuban-American people is freedom. All of us are on the same page,” said U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, 43, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami who was just elected without opposition to his second term in Congress.
In recent weeks, Cuban-American lawmakers united against efforts by farm-state legislators to expand agricultural trade with Cuba. A bipartisan group of more than two dozen senators, including Republican Larry Craig of Idaho and Democrat Max Baucus of Montana, is pushing for greater openness.
“If we don’t take action now to improve the workability of the law and facilitate our trade, we will forfeit market share to the European Union, China and others,” Craig said.
Yet freshman GOP Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, who was born in Cuba in 1946, said that would only prop up a Castro regime that coddles terrorists, promotes left-wing unrest in Latin America and commits human rights abuses against its own people.
“Our focus needs to be on freeing dissidents and continuing to support the opposition movement within Cuba, not rewarding Castro and subsidizing and strengthening his totalitarian regime,” Martinez said.
A U.S. economic embargo first imposed on Cuba in the early 1960s has only been strengthened over the years, most recently in 1996 with passage by Congress of the so-called Helms-Burton law that prohibits U.S. subsidiaries from trading with Cuba.
Although there are several ongoing humanitarian and assistance initiatives, the Bush administration in July 2004 tightened travel restrictions by limiting visits by U.S. residents to once every three years and no provision for family emergencies or deaths.
Supporters of stay-tough policies say voters - especially those in the Hispanic community - have repeatedly endorsed them. For example, President Bush got about 56 percent of the Hispanic vote in Florida in 2004, compared with 44 percent for Democrat John Kerry. In 2000, Bush got about 49 percent to Democrat Al Gore’s 48 percent, according to exit polls.
“There is a consensus here,” said Diaz-Balart.
Opponents say the moderate forces have gradually grown stronger in the years since Mariel, with more change likely as newer arrivals become U.S. citizens and begin to vote.
“By the next presidential election, we may well have a decidedly moderate majority in the community, making a change of policy much easier,” said Wayne Smith, a former U.S. envoy to Cuba who is now head of Center for International Policy’s Cuba program.
Prego, the New York native, said she thinks Cuban-Americans of every political viewpoint share one thing in common: they want freer travel to the island and a better future for the people there.
“I think people recognize the embargo as kind of a joke. It hasn’t worked. It hasn’t really changed anything,” she said. “The embargo has managed to become the symbol for Castro to blame all the failures of his system on the United States.’