Letter: President may lose support
A group of Florida Republican state representatives has drafted a letter warning President Bush he risks losing their support for the 2004 election if he does not adopt a tougher Cuba policy.
The move, which amounts to a litmus test for federal candidates on Cuban issues, exacerbates a widening rift between the administration and some Cuban-American leaders—many of whom have begun questioning their steadfast loyalty to the Republican Party.
The letter, expected to be mailed to Washington today, echoes demands expressed recently by other Cuban Americans: revise current migration policy; indict Fidel Castro for the Brothers to the Rescue shoot-down; ensure that TV Mart� is seen by people in Cuba; and increase assistance to dissidents on the island.
‘‘We feel it is our responsibility as Republican elected officials to inform you that unless substantial progress on the above-mentioned issues occurs rapidly, we fear the historic and intense support from Cuban American voters for Republican federal candidates, including yourself, will be jeopardized,’’ reads the letter, signed by 13 members of the state’s Republican Hispanic Caucus.
The spark that ignited the growing criticism was the Bush administration’s decision last month to repatriate 12 Cubans suspected of hijacking a boat to reach Florida. After negotiations with Cuba, the United States agreed to return the suspects when Castro’s government pledged to spare their lives and sentence them to no more than 10 years in prison. Even Bush’s own brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, recently criticized the decision to return the suspects.
State Rep. David Rivera, who helped draft the document, labeled discontent among Cuban-American voters as a ‘‘growing crisis’’ for Republican leaders at the federal level.
‘‘As the summer has passed, there has been a snowball effect of frustration within the Cuban-American community,’’ Rivera said in an interview Sunday. “We want immediate, tangible, substantive action.’‘
When asked what the consequences were for Bush if he failed to meet the demands, Rivera said the 13 would refuse financial and tactical support for Bush in the 2004 election including help in fundraisers.
‘‘If this is ignored, abstention or neutrality in federal races becomes a real possibility,’’ Rivera said. “It’s not an option for us to support Democrats, but we want our support to mean something.’‘
Jimmy Orr, a White House spokesman, reiterated the president’s strong feelings on trying to bring democratic change to Cuba. However, Orr declined to address the specific demands in the letter. The Herald read highlights to him.
‘‘The administration is firmly dedicated to a pro-active Cuba policy that will assist the Cuban people in their struggle for freedom,’’ Orr said in a phone interview from Washington on Sunday. “The president remains committed to the use of the embargo and travel restrictions to encourage a rapid transition.’‘
The challenge by state politicians is the latest in a series of recent backlashes against the Bush administration by Cuban-American leaders.
‘‘You can’t blame anyone but those in power,’’ said Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, who added that the criticism comes not just because of the repatriation of the 12 suspected hijackers. ‘We need less politicians coming down to South Florida and saying `que viva Cuba libre’ [long live a free Cuba] with an accent, and more action.’‘
Since last month, criticism of the Bush administration has escalated into a full-fledged attack on Cuba policies.
‘‘Our public is very upset,’’ state Rep. Juan Carlos Planas said Sunday. “[Bush] needs to know that unless things change, the support he has gotten in the past will not be there.’‘
Sergio Bendixen, a prominent South Florida pollster and political analyst who usually does work for the Democratic Party, said Sunday that until he heard about the elected officials’ letter to Bush, he did not think the Bush administration was in trouble in South Florida.
‘‘I think it’s serious,’’ Bendixen said. “[Bush] can no longer say this is just Joe Garcia or the Cuban American National Foundation upset with the president or the Republican Party. This is the establishment. All those young state representatives are the hard core of the Republican Party in Florida.’‘
The letter also places Gov. Bush in an awkward position because the members of the Republican Hispanic Caucus are among his most loyal political allies.
‘’[Jeb] believes the president has a strong record when it comes to Cuba policy,’’ the governor’s spokeswoman, Jill Bratina, said Sunday.
Besides Rivera and Planas, the letter was signed by State Reps. Marco Rubio, Ralph Arza, Gus Barreiro, Gaston Cantens, Rene Garcia, Marcelo Llorente, Manny Prieguez, Julio Robaina, Ken Sorensen, Juan Zapata and John Qui�ones. Most are from South Florida.
Zapata, a Colombian American, said he sympathized with his Cuban-American colleagues because Castro’s leftist agenda has had a terrible impact on Colombia.
Otto Reich, President Bush’s special envoy for the Western Hemisphere, could not be reached Sunday. But on Friday, he spoke at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy in Miami.
In reference to TV and Radio Mart�, Reich said the Bush administration will announce ‘‘very soon’’ a new method of penetrating the ‘‘information wall’’ that Castro has set up around Cuba.
Reich also underlined the administration’s efforts to help dissidents on the island, citing the thousands of magazine subscriptions and short wave radios that have been disseminated in Cuba.
On ‘‘wet foot, dry foot,’’ Reich said the administration had to hold the current line to avoid another mass migration. Since 1995, Cuban migrants stopped at sea are generally returned home while those who reach U.S. soil generally get to stay.
‘‘We hope this matter can be resolved before Cuban American support for Republican candidates is further damaged,’’ the document states.
Herald staff writer Marika Lynch contributed to this report.