Democratic candidates hope disagreements among Cuban Americans over the Bush administration’s new restrictions on travel to Cuba will convince some to abandon the Republican Party.
By clamping down on travel and remittances to Cuba last month, President Bush tried to send a signal to Miami’s Cuban exile community that he was serious about getting rid of leader Fidel Castro.
But some candidates for office are trying to turn the tables and use the policy change to attract Cuban-American votes to the Democratic Party. One Democratic candidate for Congress in South Florida even managed to get more than 150 voters, mostly Cuban, to put their names on campaign postcards that criticized the Bush administration’s new policies.
‘‘The new travel restrictions do not hurt the Castro regime, they hurt Cuban Americans here,’’ candidate Dave Patlak says in his postcard advertising blitz. He is running in the District 18 Democratic primary for the nomination to challenge Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, a supporter of the new rules.
‘‘We believe that Bush Republicans are redefining family, and putting a price tag on what our families are worth. This new Cuba policy is un-American,’’ Patlak says on the postcard.
Republicans say Democrats are merely engaging in election-year politics in a shallow attempt to cater to Cuban Americans.
Jennifer Coxe, spokeswoman for U.S. Senate candidate Mel Martínez, said Martínez, a Cuban American who helped write the new policy, has received very positive feedback in Miami.
‘‘The Cuban community is going to come out solidly behind the president and Mel Martínez,’’ Coxe said.
REDUCES VISITS, FUNDS
Bush’s new policy reduces the allowed number of Cubans’ and Cuban Americans’ visits to relatives on the island from once a year to once every three years. The administration also capped the amount of money that Cubans in the United States can send to relatives on the island to $100 a month.
One poll conducted by a nonpartisan, nonprofit Hispanic think tank, the William C. Velasquez Institute-Miriam Group, showed that Cuban Americans are deeply divided—mostly along generational lines—on the new restrictions.
It found that Cubans who came to the United States after 1980 and younger, U.S.-born Cubans are most likely to disapprove of Bush’s policy. Older Cubans who came before 1980 and tend to vote in higher numbers are more supportive.
One of those disgruntled Cuban-American voters is Adelaida Sanchez, 40, an immigration agency worker who used to be a Republican and voted for Bush in 2000. She said she switched to the Democratic Party recently and plans to campaign against Bush this year.
‘‘I’m voting against Bush and I’m bringing at least 30 people with me,’’ Sanchez said. “For starters, the woman who raised me is in Cuba and I can’t go visit her. I haven’t been there in two years, but if they call me suddenly to say she’s sick, I can’t go.’‘
Sanchez, who emigrated from Cuba in 1977 and registered to vote about 15 years ago, said she would reconsider Bush as a candidate if he rescinded the travel and remittance restrictions.
‘‘I won’t vote for a Republican now,’’ she said.
One Cuban-American Democrat, Roberto Solís, 65, of Westchester, said that the new policies are misguided.
‘‘We’re the only ones affected by this because no other Hispanic community in the United States is prohibited from visiting their family like this,’’ Solís said. “It shows a lack of respect for Cubans.’‘
Patlak is not the only Democrat trying to take advantage of the disagreements among Cuban Americans.
Presidential candidate John Kerry and his vice presidential running mate, John Edwards, have publicly spoken against the new travel restrictions. And Democratic Senate candidates, including Betty Castor, Peter Deutsch and Alex Penelas, have also said in recent days that they oppose the limitations on Cuban Americans’ visits to relatives in Cuba.
The Kerry campaign has hired a Miami field organizer and plans advertising and other means of courting Cuban Americans.
Matt Miller, Kerry’s spokesman for Florida, said that the campaign is going after disenchanted Cubans “aggressively.’‘
‘‘John Kerry believes that the Bush policy was an election-year policy that won’t do anything to end the regime, but will hurt Cuban Americans and the Cuban people,’’ Miller said. “We do want to make sure that Cuban Americans know the differences between our policies and George Bush’s.’‘
Tom Shea, Kerry’s Florida campaign manager, recently told The Herald that the Bush campaign “gave us an unbelievable opportunity and we have a policy that gives us an opportunity to take advantage of that . . . They’ve left themselves very vulnerable.’‘
Bush campaign spokesman Reed Dickens fired back.
‘‘John Kerry has spent his entire career trying to soften sanctions on Castro,’’ Dickens said. “Kerry attacks most aggressively on issues where his record is the weakest.’‘
At least one analyst and Democratic Party advisor thinks the candidates are treading dangerous waters.
Miami pollster Sergio Bendixen said trying to siphon Cuban-American votes by advertising against the new Bush policies could hurt Miami in the long run because it would pit generations of Cuban Americans against one another, and could end up backfiring by motivating hard-liners to work against Democrats even more.
‘‘It would be a tremendous mistake,’’ Bendixen said. “I think there’s a large group of people within the Democratic Party that would like to take advantage of that issue in a very direct way, but I’m going to continue advocating against it.’‘