By Billy House
WASHINGTON – The back-and-forth last week during appearances in Florida by presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama on U.S. policy toward Cuba showed one of two things:
•If the political maxim still holds that a presidential candidate has to be a hard-liner on enforcing the U.S. trade embargo and other sanctions against Cuba, then Republican McCain has a leg up.
•Or, a splintering of the Cuban-American vote has become such that elder hard-line Cubans may no longer hold as much sway, and Democrat Obama may be able to benefit from the shifting political terrain.
One thing is certain:
Obama is a rarity among presidential hopefuls as he suggests rethinking nearly 50 years of U.S. policy toward Cuba, which has centered on an economic embargo and other attempts to isolate the Communist island.
“It’s easier for a Democrat to take this kind of position, and easier still for a candidate like Obama because much of his support comes from younger voters,” said Stephen Craig, chairman of the Political Science Department at the University of Florida.
As for McCain, political analysts say he is doing exactly what he has to do as a Republican to win Florida – make sure to lock down the support of the Cuba hard-liners.
However, new dynamics within Florida’s Cuban-American community – generational and political splits – have analysts wondering whether that will carry the same strong, unified punch at the polls, even if it does continue to represent a key fundraising spigot.
They say Obama’s message of more engagement with other Latin nations also resonates among Florida’s growing population of Hispanic non-Cuban voters.
More than anything, the two candidates’ attention last week to Cuba and Latin America policy issues underscored the continued importance of what in recent presidential elections has been a key swing state.
McCain, Obama Trade Barbs
The kickoff was Tuesday in South Florida, where McCain told an audience of Cuban Americans that Obama is inexperienced and wrong for saying during a debate last year that he would be willing to sit down with the leaders of countries hostile to the United States without preconditions.
That “would send the worst possible signals to Cuba’s dictators – that there is no need to undertake fundamental reforms,” McCain said.
He sought to contrast Obama’s position with the stand taken by previous presidents.
The Obama camp responded with help from two Democrats, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, both with significant foreign-policy experience. They backed Obama in arguing a shift is needed from a no-dialogue Bush administration strategy toward such places as North Korea or Cuba.
McCain’s claims about previous presidents was undermined by newspaper reports that documented U.S. presidents, both Republican and Democrat, meeting with brutal dictators.
Friday, Obama fired back in a speech to the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami that his positions were being distorted.
He said, “After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions.
“John McCain’s been going around the country talking about how much I want to meet with Raul Castro, as if I’m looking for a social gathering,” Obama said. “That’s never what I’ve said, and John McCain knows it … I would be willing to lead that diplomacy at a time and place of my choosing, but only when we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.”
Obama also outlined his pledge to reverse Bush’s policy of cutting back on family visits and money Cuban Americans send to relatives on the island. He emphasized he would keep the embargo as leverage.
On that, though, McCain’s camp said Obama’s record has been inconsistent. When Obama campaigned for the U.S. Senate in 2003, he wrote on one questionnaire that he favored normalizing relations with Cuba and did not offer any qualifying conditions.
McCain, too, has had his own conflicting statements.
Accounts from newspapers during his first run for president in 2000 show he was saying that normalizing relations with Cuba was something he’d consider, even under then-president Fidel Castro, if certain freedoms could be guaranteed.
McCain – appearing May 1, 2000, on NBC’s “Hardball” – even equated his support of opening relations with Cuba with what the United States had done with Vietnam.
“We offered the Vietnamese a road map that if they did certain things, we’d do certain things,” McCain said.
The question is how the candidates’ shifting positions will play out in Florida.
A Splintering Community
In reality, McCain this past week was only reinforcing his longstanding appeal among hard-line Florida Cubans.
Part of that can be attributed to McCain’s little-publicized role since 1993 as the unpaid chairman of the board of a nonprofit “democracy building” organization: the International Republican Institute. It’s a position he still holds.
Under McCain, the group has helped to send millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars in the form of grants to fledgling political groups, independent writers, labor unions and others to advance grass-roots democracy in more than 60 countries. That has included Florida-based anti-Castro exile groups that help dissidents and finance other efforts to bring changes to the island’s government.
“Hard-line Cubans in Florida realize and appreciate that,” said Larry Birns, head of the nonprofit Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
However, there is increased evidence of political splintering within the Cuban-American community.
The invitation to Obama on Friday to speak before the Cuban American foundation in itself was the latest evidence of that group, at least, shifting from its roots as the foremost voice representing the Cuban exile cause in Washington.
For years, it held almost exclusive influence on anti-Castro exile politics. Founded by hard-liner Jorge Mas Canosa in 1981, the foundation was modeled after the powerful Israel lobby in the United States and donated millions in campaign money to keep the embargo in place.
While still a force in exile politics, the 1997 death of Mas Canosa led to a split, with its toughest hard-liners leaving the group to form the Cuban Liberty Council.
Whether the Cuban American National Foundation’s loyalty today is up for grabs, though, remains uncertain.
Its president, Francisco “Pepe” Hernandez, who helped found the group with Mas Canosa, said it won’t formally endorse a candidate.
He also said Obama’s speech was well-received because the current U.S. policy toward Cuba needs to change, given internal changes occurring on the island.
Hernandez said he is among those disappointed that McCain, whom he calls a friend, wants to continue Bush’s policies, such as curbing remittances and American travel.
Florida-based pollsters said there are two main dynamics helping to shift the politics of Cuba.
First is that the original generation of Cuban exiles is getting older and dying.
They are being replaced by children who are Florida-born and have more interest in the issues affecting other young Americans, such as the economy, the war and education. Those are the voters Obama may be appealing to.
Although as much as 40 percent of the Cuban-American vote is seen as safe for a Republican presidential candidate, pollsters say about 60 percent of the Cuban-American electorate is second-generation and may not be so safe for the GOP.
The second changing dynamic is that the relative weight of the Cuban-American vote in Florida, overall, is decreasing because of the influx of immigrants from other countries. Those new groups do not have the similar historic links to the Republican Party.
Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Colombians and Venezuelans are turning Florida’s Hispanic blocs into more of a swing vote, experts say.
Craig and other political analysts are far from ready to predict Obama will be propelled to victory in Florida based on the appeal of his Cuba strategy.
“I suspect there could potentially be some payoff,” Craig said. “Whether that will make him competitive in Florida, I don’t know.”