BY OSCAR CORRAL AND LESLEY CLARK | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Miami Herald

Two Republican state legislators who signed a letter to President Bush urging him to get tougher on Cuba or face a loss of Cuban American political support said they received phone calls from Bush staffers Monday indicating an eventual positive response.

State Rep. David Rivera, who helped draft the letter signed by 13 Hispanic lawmakers, said a Bush administration official called him to talk about news reports of the document. Rivera declined to identify the person or the topic, but said, “I am optimistic that positive news is forthcoming on U.S.-Cuba policy.’‘

State Rep. Marco Rubio, another of the signers, said he also got a call early Monday morning from a White House staffer whom he wouldn’t identify.
‘They said, `You can be sure the right people, the decision makers, are going to know about this today,’ ‘’ Rubio said.

However, White House spokeswoman Jeanie Mamo said Monday afternoon that the letter had not yet arrived.

The letter, sent Monday, urges the president to make key changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba or face an erosion of support from Cuban Americans, who have traditionally been one of the Republican party’s core constituencies. It asks Bush to revise U.S.-Cuba immigration policy; indict Fidel Castro for murder; beef up TV Marti, and increase aid to dissidents on the island.

Several of the legislators on Monday said The Herald’s story about the letter incorrectly said that it warned the president that he could lose their personal support if there were no action taken on Cuba. In fact, the carefully phrased document only warned Bush that he might lose the backing of the Cuban American community in general in 2004—not necessarily that of the individual signers.

Yet it was clear from interviews with the signers that several placed themselves on the side of those Cuban-American voters willing to abandon the president.

ISSUE OF SUPPORT

‘‘If we don’t feel that improvements are made in policy toward Cuba, then federal candidates for the Republican party, like Bush, could lose our support,’’ said State Rep. Manny Prieguez, chairman of the House Republican Hispanic Caucus. “We can refuse to campaign for them, or help bring out the vote . . . or go on the radio and not mention them.’‘

Prieguez, Rivera, and state representatives Rene Garcia and Gaston Cantens told The Herald they would consider withdrawing personal support for Bush if he does not make substantive changes in U.S.-Cuba policy.

But state representatives Juan Zapata, Juan Carlos Planas and Rubio, all of whom signed the letter, were more cautious.

‘‘I personally would advocate against’’ withdrawing support for the president, Rubio said. “But whatever we do will be decided as a group.’‘

‘‘I wouldn’t go as far as withdrawing my support of him,’’ echoed Zapata.

The other representatives who signed the letter could not be reached for comment.

But Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, said that merely petitioning the president is a courageous act.

‘‘This is the core of the Republican party,’’ Garcia said. “They have shown tremendous leadership.’‘

VOTE COMING

The letter comes less than a month before Congress is set to vote on possibly easing the embargo against Cuba, a keystone of U.S.-Cuba policy for more than four decades.

‘‘It is absolutely critical that you express as soon as possible, once again, that you will never permit any weakening of the embargo while you are president,’’ the letter states.

Supporters of economic sanctions against Cuba have faced an uphill battle to maintain current policy in recent years, as legislators from Midwest farm states eager to trade with Cuba have helped push an anti-embargo agenda.

On Monday, congressmen Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart praised the state lawmakers for the letter and agreed with the recommendations. But neither said they would consider withdrawing their support of Bush in 2004 if he ignores the document.

The legislators ‘‘are very grateful as we all are to the president for his full support for the embargo,’’ Lincoln Diaz-Balart said. “I know we are going to see additional steps from President Bush.’‘

In an interview Monday, Mamo, the White House spokeswoman, reiterated Bush’s support for the embargo: “The administration will oppose any effort to loosen sanctions on the Cuban regime until it takes meaningful political, economic and labor reforms and respects human rights.’‘

Rivera said the letter went through several different drafts before everyone agreed to sign it. As far back as three weeks ago, Rivera and other legislators approached Florida International University political science Professor Daro Moreno for his advice on the letter, Moreno said.

‘‘David shepherded it through and kept it alive,’’ Moreno said.

Tampa state Rep. Bob Henriquez, a Cuban-American Democrat, said he was encouraged the caucus had taken a stand, noting that many members had been under pressure from constituents but were reluctant to ‘‘step out of line’’ and criticize a Republican.

`TAKING HEAT’

‘‘I knew they were taking heat,’’ Henriquez said. “You can be sure if this had been a Democratic administration it would have been taken to task very early and quite harshly. The caucus has an ability to be a formidable group in the Legislature and use the bully pulpit on a national stage, but it hasn’t happened.’‘

‘‘The bottom line is that a promise was made to the community in Miami to toughen the policy on Cuba and that hasn’t happened,’’ Henriquez said.

The letter wasn’t signed by the state Senate’s Republican Cuban-Americans, who are not part of the House Hispanic caucus, but Sens. Alex Diaz de la Portilla and Alex Villalobos said Monday that they shared their House colleagues’ angst.

‘‘This is important to our community,’’ Diaz de la Portilla said.

Sen. Rudy Garcia, R-Hialeah, couldn’t be reached for comment.