By Caren Bohan | Reuters
President George W. Bush has accused Cuba’s Fidel Castro of welcoming sex tourism and contributing to a global problem of human trafficking, as he courted Cuban voters in Florida, a pivotal state in the election.
“The regime of Fidel Castro has turned Cuba into a major destination for sex tourism,” Bush said, adding that the Cuban president “welcomes sex tourism” as a source of hard currency for his government.
Addressing a conference on human trafficking, Bush quoted Castro as saying that prostitutes in Havana were the cleanest and best educated in the world.
Bush said that comment was evidence that Havana was encouraging sex tourism. Castro praised Cuban prostitutes for having a college education in a documentary interview by the U.S. filmmaker Oliver Stone.
Cuba’s government, born of a revolution against a corrupt U.S.-backed dictatorship that allowed Mafia-run gaming and prostitution to thrive in Havana in the 1950’s, strongly denies tolerating sex tourism. Police have cracked down on the trade.
The Department of Justice-organised conference was aimed at touting the administration’s efforts to crack down on the trafficking of people across borders for forced labour such as prostitution and sweatshop work.
Bush called on the United Nations in 2003 to address human trafficking. Christian conservatives concerned with the issue are a core base of support for the Republican president nationwide.
By assailing Cuba on the trafficking issue, Bush was underscoring a get-tough approach toward Castro that has included other rhetorical salvos as well as tightening of a trade embargo against his government.
Bush’s tough approach toward Castro has played well with many Cuban-Americans, but some have expressed anger about new restrictions limiting visits to family members still in Cuba and slashing the amount of financial support they can provide to relatives.
Underscoring the importance of the Cuban-American vote, Bush’s motorcade also made a stop at a Cuban restaurant, La Tropicana, where he and his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, bought sandwiches and posed for pictures with the owners of the restaurant.
Gathering as many votes as possible among Florida’s 800,000 generally staunchly anti-Castro Cuban-Americans is considered essential if Bush is to take the state in November.
A new Zogby poll of Florida voters showed John Kerry eking out a small lead against Bush, giving Bush 44 percent support to his Democratic challenger’s 47 percent.
Pollster John Zogby said Kerry was benefiting from the attention given his recent selection of North Carolina Senator John Edwards as his running mate.
“It’s nobody’s state,” Zogby said of Florida, adding that polls have leaned toward one candidate or another from time to time but the race is still highly competitive.
Florida was the site of the 36-day ballot recount saga in 2000. Bush was declared the winner of the state—and thus of the general election—by 537 votes only after the intervention of the Supreme Court.