By JAY CRIDLIN | St Petersburg Times Staff Writer
Rolando Carbonelo considers himself a Republican. He voted for President Bush in 2000 and he maintains that “he has not been a bad president overall.”
But this year, the Tampa resident said, he’s voting for John Kerry.
“I have no other choice,” said Carbonelo, a 59-year-old Cuban expatriate would said he is furious over Bush’s recent restrictions on travel to the island. The restrictions mean Carbonelo will be unable to visit his four uncles there.
“Family comes before anything,” he said. “God, family and country. That’s the order.”
Carbonelo and about 150 other rain-soaked protesters lined Himes Avenue near Columbus Drive on Saturday morning to show opposition to the new travel restrictions, which allow visits to immediate family in Cuba only once every three years.
Just across Himes, though, stood a group of more than 100 supporters of Bush’s policy - evidence that for Cuban Americans, a vital voting bloc in Florida, this issue is as divisive as any in an already contentious election year.
“This represents a split among Cuban Americans,” said Maura Barrios, assistant director of the Latin American and Caribbean studies department at the University of South Florida. “A lot of them were saying they were Republicans who voted for Bush, and they’re not voting for him anymore because of this particular issue.”
The new restrictions include 14-day limits on family trips to Cuba, a 44-pound luggage weight limit and new rules on what can be brought back into the country. Travelers may spend only $300, including a maximum of $50 per day. And money may be sent only to immediate family members.
Kerry has said he favors “principled travel” to Cuba.
“It’s not really around Democratic or Republican politics,” said Barrios, who said this was the first rally of this kind she’s seen in Tampa. “It’s coming from the right to travel law. Since Bush is the one implementing that with the support of the Cuban right-wing people, that’s what’s creating the split. That’s why Bush becomes the target.”
Henry Mendoza, 42, said he viewed the travel restrictions as civil rights violations.
“These regulations only target Cuban Americans visiting Cuba,” he said. “It’s pretty discriminatory.”
The demonstration against Bush’s policy was organized by the Cuban Committee to Defend Family Rights, which was formed recently in response to the president’s policy changes, said Barrios.
Bush supporters, however, said the protesters were profiteers under the old policy. The backers of the new Bush policy said under the old rules, people made money by charging families in the United States to deliver clothes, medical supplies and money to Cuba.
“They’ve got no respect for the laws of the United States,” said 71-year-old Alfredo Naranjo of Tampa, a proponent of the Bush plan. “They basically want to live off the suffering of the Cuban people.”
Marcelo Suarez, 19, said the split was unfortunate, but that the Bush policy was necessary to fight Fidel Castro’s regime.
“We all have family in Cuba. We’re all suffering over this,” Suarez said. “This is showing us as a divided front. We’ve always shown a united front against everything.”
The two sides volleyed chants across Himes for three hours. At least twice, tempers escalated to the point where people from both sides stepped onto Himes for a heated exchange at the median. Police promptly ushered the protesters back out of traffic; no violence was reported.
Across town, Democratic senatorial hopeful Betty Castor opened her Ybor City campaign headquarters Saturday by speaking out against the new travel restrictions.
She outlined her own Cuba policy, which calls for once-a-year island visits by family members and the freedom to send unlimited money to Cuban relatives. A campaign spokesman said the policy announcement was not related to the protest at Himes and Columbus.
“I think there is a consensus among leaders in this state that the (trade) embargo should stay in place,” Castor said. “But how do you convince people on the island of Cuba about the importance of democracy and democratic traditions? You don’t do that by limiting access of families here in Florida and around the country to their Cuban families.”
Calls to the campaign of Rep. Peter Deutsch, one of Castor’s primary opponents for the Democratic nomination, were not returned.
A statement on Peter Deutsch’s campaign Web site says Deutsch believes in a hefty tax on U.S. firms that trade with Cuba “if the profits from that trade are tied to lobbying Congress to lift trade and travel restrictions.”
Danae Jones, a spokeswoman for Democratic Senate candidate Alex Penelas, Miami-Dade County’s mayor, said she didn’t know if he favored allowing Cuban Americans to visit Cuba more often than once every three years. He has not formed an official policy on the issue, she said.