Henry Hamman in Miami | Financial Times
As the Bush administration prepares its response to the crackdown on Cuba’s dissident movement and Havana’s execution of three ferry hijackers, the political stakes have risen.
Florida’s 27 electoral votes look increasingly vital to President George W. Bush’s second-term victory strategy, and he will need the support of Cuban-American voters to secure them.
Cubans make up 7 per cent of Florida’s electorate, but vote in disproportionately high numbers. With many analysts already slotting New York and California in the Democratic camp for 2004, Florida’s electoral votes may be just as crucial in 2004 as they were in 2000, when the official margin of victory for Mr Bush was just 537 votes.
“The Republicans will do just about anything to keep the Hispanic vote in Florida,” says Susan MacManus, an expert on Florida politics at the University of South Florida.
Even before Fidel Castro’s crackdown, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American Republican congresswoman from Miami, wrote to Mr Bush reminding him that “during the 2000 presidential campaign, my colleagues and I were promised a bottom-up review of US-Cuba policy”. Her letter contained a list of policy demands.
Many Cuban-American administration officials now influence US policy towards Cuba, among them Mel Mart�nez, housing and urban development secretary, Emilio Gonzalez of the National Security Council, and Otto Reich, the White House adviser and former assistant secretary of state.
Recently, some Floridians have focused on reports that the Bush administration might ban cash remittances to family in Cuba. Miami’s Cuban-Americans are split over the ban. Backers say Mr Castro’s economy depends on money from Miami - its biggest source of foreign exchange - and that cutting the cash will hasten his end. Opponents counter that a ban would chiefly hurt relatives in Cuba.
Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami’s Center for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, warns that Mr Castro could retaliate toacash ban by unleashing uncontrolled migration on south Florida.
Washington has warned Mr Castro that such a crisis would be considered an act of aggression. But turning back boats full of refugees is politically risky, says Mr Suchlicki. Speaking privately, some Cuba hardliners in the administration discourage speculation on a remittance ban.
Another option is improving TV Mart�, the propaganda network aimed at - but currently jammed in - Havana. On May 20 last year - Cuban Independence Day - Mr Bush told a cheering rally in Miami that he would “modernise” TV Mart�, possibly by broadcasting to Cuba using a specially outfitted cargo aircraft.
Last week Jose Basulto, head of Brothers to the Rescue - the Miami-based group that became famous in 1996 when two of its reconnaissance aircraft were shot down by Cuban MiGs - attached a 20-watt television transmitter toasingle-engine aircraft and broadcast into Havana. His effort may come across as a direct challenge to hold the White House to its promise to upgrade TV Mart�.
Whatever their policy views, many Cuban-Americans see the anniversary of Mr Bush’s Miami speech as the time to collect the political reward for their support for brother Jeb and for President Bush to make a political downpayment for Cuban-American support in the 2004 presidential race.
The brothers are said to discuss Cuba policy frequently. Jeb Bush, who is popular among his Cuban-American constituents, called regime change in Havana “the only way to bring freedom and democracy to the country”. He said the US and Florida “have plans in place to deal with a mass exodus from Cuba”.
The president is also keeping an eye on two Florida Democrats who are popular among Cuban-Americans. Bob Graham, a Florida senator, is running for president next year. Though considered a long shot, many regard him as a strong running-mate for the eventual nominee. Alex Penelas, mayor of Miami, is raising funds for a run at Mr Graham’s Senate seat.
One Cuban-American lobbyist acknowledged the power Cuban-Americans held over Washington political operatives. “Cuba isn’t a foreign policy issue,” he said. “It’s domestic.”