President Bush marks Cuban Independence Day with little pomp, reaffirming his commitment to rid Cuba of Fidel Castro.
President Bush marked Cuban Independence Day on Thursday by pledging to ratchet up restrictions against Fidel Castro amid signs that his hard-line policy could cost him points among Cuban Americans with relatives on the island.
Bush chose an uncharacteristically low-key approach to note the Cuban holiday, in sharp contrast to the fiery speech he gave in Miami six months before his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, faced reelection in 2002.
President Bush, who marked the holiday last year with a radio address denouncing Fidel Castro and a private meeting with former political prisoners, instead issued a brief statement from the White House, vowing to speed up Castro’s departure by carrying out the changes he announced two weeks ago.
‘‘We stand firmly with the 11 million Cuban people who still suffer under the repressive Castro dictatorship,’’ Bush said in the statement, promising to ‘‘vigorously implement’’ the findings of a Cuba study panel that recommended more aid for island dissidents, less travel to Cuba and greater restrictions on cash and gifts to people on the island.
Bush went to the Capitol on Thursday morning to rally congressional Republicans worried about the continuing violence in Iraq, and campaign officials said the lack of Cuba sizzle was no reflection on the president’s commitment to a key political base that Republicans view as critical to his reelection. At least eight in 10 of Florida’s nearly half-million Cuban-American voters backed Bush in 2000, when he won the state by 537 votes.
Observers suggested, though, that the new restrictions represent a double-edged sword for Bush, who has sought to woo back Cuban Americans disenchanted with his administration’s progress on ridding Cuba of Castro.
The new restrictions that Bush announced will cut back family visits to Cuba by Cuban Americans from once a year to once every three years and tighten the list of those on the island who can receive cash remittances and packages from the United States.
By coming down hard on travel and cash, the president risks alienating some moderate Cuban Americans.
‘‘People with family members see it as a punishment for the families, not Castro,’’ said Esteban Bovo, a Hialeah City Council member and one of two dozen elected officials who this week sent a letter to the White House in support of the recommendations. “But there has to be a bitter pill to swallow if we’re ever going to see democracy in Cuba.’‘
Supporters warn that Bush must now deliver on the promises or risk more disappointment within the community.
Some said Thursday that they were worried that there were delays in the launch of an airplane that is to be enlisted to better fight Cuba’s jamming of Radio and TV Marti.
PLANE COMING `SOON’
A spokesman for the State Department said the plane was not scheduled to be launched on Thursday, but will ‘‘soon’’ be deployed.
‘‘There’s always been a lot of talk, talk, talk,’’ said Manuel Cereijo, who voted for Bush in 2000 and ‘‘so far’’ plans to vote for him for reelection.
Democrats sought to exploit the situation, with U.S. Rep. Bob Menendez of New Jersey blasting the administration for “400 pages of words . . . after over 1,000 days of inaction.’‘
Bush campaign officials waved off suggestions that Bush’s Cuban-American support will flag.
‘‘The president is going to retain the support of the entire Cuban community, first because his policies have been consistent and strong and second because the awful choice is Sen. Kerry, who has been weak and inconsistent on Castro,’’ said Bush-Cheney spokesman Reed Dickens.
John Kerry, who has met with Cuban Americans in South Florida to develop a Cuba policy, issued a Cuban Independence Day declaration as well, saying he was “committed to working with Cuban Americans, our allies in the region and the Cuban people to promote liberty and freedom on the island.’‘