The Bush administration’s decision this week to send 12 Cuban migrants back to the island has unleashed a wave of anger among exile leaders who, for the first time, are openly questioning their commitment to the Republican president.
The fury has created a public feud between top leaders of the influential Cuban American National Foundation, who say their loyalty to Bush in the 2000 election is proving worthless, and Miami-Dade County’s three Republican Cuban-American members of Congress, who have aligned themselves closely with the president.
The spat has dominated the Spanish-language airwaves in South Florida for two days, with foundation Executive Director Joe Garcia calling Rep. Lincoln D�az-Balart politically ‘‘impotent’’ for failing to influence the president, and D�az-Balart accusing the foundation of cozying up to communists.
‘‘There comes a point where you cannot sit at the table when everything you see is cutting against you,’’ Garcia said. “What is it exactly we got for our vote? When you sell yourself cheaply, you get treated cheaply.’‘
D�az-Balart, who issued a joint statement bashing the president’s decision this week with his brother, Rep. Mario D�az-Balart, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, did not respond to requests for an interview.
But Lincoln D�az-Balart told WLTV-Univision 23 this week that Garcia is ‘‘irrelevant’’ and lashed out at foundation leader Jorge Mas Santos’ approach to Cuba policy, suggesting the foundation’s strategy can only help Fidel Castro.
Garcia’s ‘‘little boss has for years desperately tried to do business with the communists,’’ the congressman said. “That’s why he’s engaged now in a macabre campaign to try to weaken our community here in Congress.’‘
In a written statement to The Herald, D�az-Balart derided the foundation leaders as “remnants of an organization that had once been on our side, but now has become part of the coalition working to weaken U.S. opposition to the dictatorship in Cuba.’‘
Garcia shot back in an interview, calling D�az-Balart’s comments ‘‘classic McCarthyism’’ and saying that D�az-Balart lost an opportunity to use the foundation’s attacks as a tool to prod the president.
‘‘This is why people don’t take his leadership seriously on this issue,’’ Garcia said.
The verbal fisticuffs were sparked by Monday’s repatriation of 12 Cubans who were suspected of having hijacked a boat to reach Florida. After negotiations with the Cuban government, the United States agreed to return the suspected hijackers—but only after Castro’s government pledged to spare their lives and sentence them to no more than 10 years in prison.
Tensions built even more late Thursday, when Garcia learned that Kevin Whitaker, coordinator of Cuban affairs in the State Department, canceled his planned appearance at the foundation’s annual congress this weekend.
White House spokesman Sean McCormack insisted Thursday that the administration’s policies on Cuba were beyond reproach.
‘‘The president’s strong record on Cuba speaks for itself,’’ McCormack said, declining to offer specifics.
The mounting tensions underscore the widening differences within the Miami exile community over how a changing but still-powerful voting bloc can influence decisions in Washington.
Typically, Florida’s 400,000 Cuban-American voters align almost uniformly behind Republicans.
More than eight in 10 backed the president and his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, in 2000 and 2002—a bloc that many activists say is responsible for handing the president Florida’s critical electoral votes three years ago and putting him into office.
OPEN TO ALTERNATIVES
Foundation leaders, led by Garcia, a Democrat, are open to alternative candidates and favor courting support from both parties, much like the pro-Israel lobby—which some in the foundation want to emulate—evenly distributing money and support in congressional and presidential elections.
Some exile leaders have met quietly in recent months with Democrats seeking to challenge Bush next year, including Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman.
‘‘If we are to be in this situation 16 months from now [when Bush is up for reelection], I am completely certain that this administration and the Republican Party cannot expect Cuban-American people to make a significant contribution to his reelection,’’ said Francisco ‘‘Pepe’’ Hern�ndez, a Republican and the foundation’s president.
‘‘He’s been a great, great president on many of the critical issues,’’ Hern�ndez added, “but as far as the Cuban issues are concerned, I have to be honest, he’s getting an F.’‘
Still, as exile leaders battle among themselves for clout in Washington and Miami, experts say the Bush administration has a growing problem as the president angles to win Florida’s 27 electoral votes next year.
Monday’s events, they say, exposed long-simmering tension—that the Bush administration has failed to deliver on promises such as increased aid to people fighting Castro from within Cuba, and improved transmissions of Radio Marti—even as it spends billions to liberate Iraqis and Afghanis.
While the Bushes have enjoyed strong support in the exile community, President Clinton showed in 1996 that Democrats can make inroads, winning at least 30 percent of the Cuban American vote—enough to help him win Florida and reelection.
Florida House Republican Leader Marco Rubio described Thursday a ‘‘sense of frustration on the street’’ in Miami over the treatment of the 12 boaters this week.
Another leading Cuban-American Republican, state Rep. Gus Barreiro of Miami Beach, called it a “new level of frustration.’‘
‘‘There isn’t anybody from the Cuban community that could for one second agree with sending these people back to a country where they’re going to get executed OR get 10 years in prison,’’ Barreiro said.
Herald translator Renato Perez contributed to this report.