By Manuel Roig-Franzia | Washington Post Staff Writer
MIAMI—The rare occasion of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush criticizing the administration of his brother, President Bush, for negotiating the return of 12 suspected hijackers to Cuba is adding intrigue to the courtship of Cuban American voters considered crucial in next year’s presidential election.
Jeb Bush told the Miami Herald in an interview published today that “despite the good intentions of the administration to negotiate the safety of these folks, that is an oppressive regime, and given the environment in Cuba, it’s just not right.”
The suspected hijackers, 11 men and one woman, were intercepted by U.S. patrol ships July 15 after allegedly seizing control of a Cuban boat and heading toward Florida. The capture prompted impassioned pleas from exile leaders, who hoped the suspected hijackers would be prosecuted in the United States.
Cuban American exile leaders have grown increasingly frustrated with the Bush administration, saying the president has reneged on promises to allow more refugees to stay in the United States and to strengthen policies against Fidel Castro’s government. Seeing a possible opening, Democrats have been making strong overtures to Cuban Americans.
During a South Florida campaign trip this week, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), a Democratic presidential candidate, called the decision to return the suspected hijackers to Cuba “a setback for America’s best values.”
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said the Cubans should never have been sent back and that he has requested an investigation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Jeb Bush told the Herald that the president may be announcing a change in his Cuba policy within months, a remark that has been greeted cautiously by exile leaders who say top U.S. officials often pay lip service to their issues and do not follow through.
“This community made a substantial commitment to the president. We’re not only not getting what we were promised, we’re getting treated worse,” Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, said today. “When commitments aren’t lived up to, then action needs to be taken.”
A spokeswoman for Jeb Bush said today that he favored sending the suspects to a third country and that he spoke about the issue with high-ranking administration officials, including national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
The Bush administration eventually negotiated an agreement with the Castro government, allowing for the suspected hijackers to be sent back to Cuba as long as they would serve no more than 10 years in prison.
The repatriation decision made the president—who enjoyed strong support from the Cuban American community when he won Florida in the fiercely disputed 2000 election—into an object of derision in Little Havana and other bastions of Cuban American influence. Conservative Spanish-language radio stations aired hastily modified salsa songs mocking the president, and he was excoriated by anti-Castro commentators. The timing was particularly bad for the president, because there has been a surge in the usual drumbeat of anti-Castro sentiment here after the recent jailing in Cuba of dozens of dissidents.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said today that the president agrees with his brother that Cuba’s government is oppressive. But McClellan said the U.S. policy on Cuba is clear when it comes to “wet feet, dry feet,” referring to the policy under which Cubans who reach U.S. soil are automatically allowed to stay; those caught at sea are sent home.
Young Cuban Americans, especially those born in the United States, are considered promising targets for Democrats because they tend to be more moderate than their elders and less focused on toppling Castro. In the delicately balanced geometry of South Florida politics, Jeb Bush’s hint at a coming change in Cuba policy could serve as early damage control for his brother with older, conservative Cuban Americans, strategists said, while leaving his brother free to seek issues that appeal more to younger Cuban Americans.
“One of the problems they’re confronting is a generational problem,” said Darryl Paulson, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. “That’s a tough task.”