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HavanaJournal.com: Cuba Politics

Bush’s Cuba moves stir backlash among Cuban Americans

Posted May 31, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Politics.
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BY LESLEY CLARK | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Miami Herald

President Bush seeks to shore up his Cuba credentials by getting tough on Fidel Castro, but some Cuban Americans with family members on the island are not happy about it.

U.S. Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart hailed President Bush as the ‘‘best friend’’ of Cuban exiles when the White House this month touted its election-year strategy to crack down on Fidel Castro.

Parts of the plan—a boost in aid to dissidents on the island and a renewed effort to broadcast Cuban government-jammed Radio and TV Marti—met with broad acclaim from Cuban Americans.
But Bush’s nod to the hard-liners in the exile community—a further restriction on travel to the island and a clamp-down on those who can receive cash assistance from U.S. relatives—has touched off an emotionally charged backlash among Cuban Americans with family members still in Cuba and among some exiles who believe that change can come only from within the island.

And it has led some to warn that by playing to his conservative base, the president could hand Democratic rival John Kerry an opening in a state that decided the presidency in 2000 by just 537 votes.

‘‘It’s counter to the basic principle of family reunification,’’ said Miami banker Carlos Saladrigas, chairman of the moderate Cuba Study Group.

He noted that he has been a Republican ‘‘all my life’’ but is incensed by the travel and cash restrictions and is wrestling with how he will vote in November.

‘‘We want to affect the Cuban government, not hurt the Cuban people, and these are absolutely and totally the wrong measures,’’ he said.

Infuriated by the restrictions, several Cuban-American exile groups have begun to collect signatures to petition the administration to lift them. Others plan a voter registration campaign aimed at signing up new citizens—those most likely to be affected by the changes.

‘‘It was a potentially dangerous move for a candidate who needs 80 percent of the Cuban vote,’’ said Sergio Bendixen, a Democratic pollster who estimates that close to half of all Cuban Americans and 25 percent of Cuban-American voters send money home to family members on the island. “He can’t afford to alienate anyone.’‘

VOTER SUPPORT

Republican strategists, though, scoff at the suggestion that Bush risks any softening of support from the reliably Republican CubanAmerican voting bloc. They note that the new policy is the result of lobbying by a politically active hard-line exile community that last summer warned the president that he needed to match his anti-Castro rhetoric with results or risk losing its support.

And they suggest that those most affected by the changes are recent arrivals, unlikely to be registered to vote.

‘‘I’m more concerned about a different kind of backlash, the mainstream Cuban-American community that may not come through if this isn’t carried out,’’ said state Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican who last summer wrote to Bush, urging him to adopt a tougher Cuba policy.

The warning came as the administration last July sent back 12 Cubans suspected of hijacking a boat to reach Florida. Angry exile leaders saw it as a costly misstep by a Republican president who had failed to fulfill campaign promises to toughen policies targeting Castro’s government.

The new steps, they say, fulfill those promises and more.

‘‘President Bush is the best ally of freedom for Cuba that we have,’’ said Ninoska Perez-Castellon, a spokeswoman for the Cuban Liberty Council, whose Radio Mambí show Vice President Dick Cheney recently chose for a rare interview in which he touted the new policy.

The new restrictions provide clear evidence that despite some polls that show increasing numbers of Cuban Americans steadily moving away from hard-line positions, the administration has the ear of the “exilio historico’’—the first wave of Cuban exiles who retain a tight grip on South Florida’s Cuban-American political infrastructure and influential Spanish radio.

The policy includes recommendations made by the Cuban American National Foundation. But foundation President Francisco ‘‘Pepe’’ Hernandez said the group never advocated tighter restrictions on travel and aid, believing it could injure families and set back efforts to foster democracy on the island.

COMMITTEE VOTERS

Strategists suggest that Bush has more to gain from playing to the hard-liners, who are more likely to be committed voters. ‘‘The people who vote are the hard-core, hard-line exiles,’’ said Rivera, a former Hispanic outreach director for the Republican Party of Florida.

‘‘You might have these polls that show the community has changed, but that’s not the heart of the community,’’ said Perez-Castellon, whose group splintered off from the foundation in 2001 amid differences in approach to Cuba policy.

Rivera notes that Bush needs to excite the hard-right Cuban-American base in an election year that otherwise has little to galvanize Florida’s nearly half-million Cuban voters. That’s a contrast to 2000, when outrage over the Clinton administration’s decision to return Elián González to his father in Cuba helped Bush roll over Al Gore among Cuban Americans and narrowly secure the state.

SHOWING RESTRAINT?

Yet, critics of the restrictions note that Bush did not eliminate travel and cash gifts as proof that such a move would be politically toxic. According to several people close to the negotiations, the administration was aggressively lobbied to eliminate the restrictions, but held off.

‘‘He’s just moved the ball forward, but right behind this huge package is something that’s neither rational nor pragmatic,’’ said Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation.

But Democrats suggest that Kerry will need to bolster his Cuba credentials if he hopes to siphon off Cuban-American voters. ‘‘At this time, the choice for those people who are upset is to either be for Bush or sit it out. No one has made a play for them yet,’’ said Bendixen, who is consulting for a Democratic group that plans to push for Hispanic votes in South Florida.

Kerry’s campaign disputes the contention that the Massachusetts senator hasn’t become engaged with the issue, noting that the senator has said he supports the economic embargo against the Cuban government, but is interested in lifting the travel ban to encourage democracy.

‘‘George Bush has created an opening for any opponent by failing to deliver on his promises and now by failing to present a coherent policy,’’ said Kerry campaign spokesman Mark Kornblau. “John Kerry has on numerous occasions clearly articulated a clear anti-Castro policy that also proactively explains how he will bring about democracy by encouraging face-to-face exchanges and encouraging civil society.’‘

The Bush campaign has said it will seek to exploit what it says is Kerry’s record of changing his stance on Cuba—saying he backed a 1996 law to stiffen sanctions on the communist island even though he voted against the measure on final passage.

‘‘The information we are receiving is that people are grateful for the president’s consistent stand against Castro,’’ said Bush spokesman Reed Dickens.

Member Comments

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On May 31, 2004, publisher wrote:

As we have asked in previous Commentary posts to similar news articles, we are looking for ANYONE to post comments in FAVOR of these new sanctions. So far, we have NO posts in favor.

On the other side, if there are younger Cuban Americans out there that want to openly disagree with the hard line Cuban exiles, please stand up and voice your comments here.

We will give you the opportunity to post a full article with its own separate page at the Havana Journal.