President Bush worked Friday to stop erosion in his support among Cuban Americans, denouncing Cuban President Fidel Castro as a tyrant and promising to uphold the economic embargo of the communist island nation.
The president also visited a fire station and received an update on the rebuilding effort from Hurricane Charley, which devastated swaths of Florida on Aug. 13. Bush promised the storm-ravaged state an additional $2 billion in aid.
“I believe -- and strongly believe -- the people of Cuba should be free from the tyrant,” Bush told a campaign rally in a half-empty arena in downtown Miami. “I believe that enforcing the embargo is a necessary part of that strategy.”
Bush’s visit to Miami, a predominantly Democratic city, broke the campaign’s usual practice of visiting Republican regions of electoral battleground states like Florida.
One reason was to appeal to the Miami-based Cuban population. Bush laced his remarks with one-liners in Spanish.
“Vamos a ganar en noviembre,” he said several times: We are going to win in November.
He took aim at his Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, accusing him of trying to claim that he both supported and opposed the 1996 Helms-Burton law, which penalizes companies that do business with Cuba.
“Voto si, y despues, voto no,” Bush said -- “He voted yes and then he voted no.” Following vigorous applause, the president added: “When I say something, I mean it. We will not rest until the Cuban people enjoy the same freedoms in Havana that they receive here in America.”
Bush also announced that last weekend, the United States made the first of what he pledged would be regular overflights of the island to evade Cuban efforts to block U.S. radio broadcasts.
In recent months, Florida’s Cuban American community has been divided over the Bush administration’s efforts to tighten the embargo on Cuba. In May, the administration announced stricter rules on travel to the island and the amount of money Cuban Americans may send home. The rules limited trips to one every three years -- down from one a year.
The new rules pleased many Cubans, especially the older generation, which sees money and travel to Cuba as helping Castro. Among them is Josephine Rosenthal, 62, who came to the United States in the Mariel boatlift of the 1980s and who says the $100 a month she can send to her mother in Cuba is more than enough.
“All the money the people bring to Cuba doesn’t go to the poor people,” said Rosenthal, who said she was a strong Bush supporter. “The money goes to Castro, and he is stronger with the money.”
But the new rules have drawn opposition from others in the Cuban community -- not in evidence at the rally -- who complain that the regulations restrict their contact with loved ones and punish relatives back on the island without hurting Castro.
A recent poll by the nonpartisan William C. Velasquez Institute of four southern Florida counties showed that support for the president had dropped to 66%. In 2000, Bush took 82% of the Cuban vote, which proved crucial in a state that decided the outcome of the election.
Bush campaign officials drew attention instead to a poll commissioned by a Florida affiliate of Univision, the Spanish-language network, that showed Bush and Cheney leading Kerry and Edwards by 5 percentage points in Miami-Dade County. The poll had a 4-point margin of error.
For the most part, demographic shifts across Florida since 2000 have helped Kerry -- particularly the growing influence of Latinos with roots in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, who usually lean Democratic. That has diminished the power of Republican-leaning Cuban Americans.
The Miami Arena, an indoor sports stadium, was less than half-full, with the stadium’s upper levels draped in black sheeting, obscuring the empty seats. Cubans appeared to be a minority of the audience, which was largely non-Latino, and most Latinos in attendance appeared to be elderly.
Campaign officials said they were pleased with the turnout, which they said numbered 7,000. They said much of their support in the area was among working people who couldn’t take time off from work.
Kerry has called for a policy of “principled travel” to the island. He says he would allow more family visits but leave the embargo in place.
Kerry campaign officials said Kerry’s position on the Helms-Burton restrictions was, in effect, the same as the president’s.
Kerry voted for the legislation twice, but opposed the final conference report, which included a new provision calling for additional sanctions on foreign companies. The Bush administration also has objected to that provision and waived it every year the law has been in effect.
“For three and a half years, (Bush) did nothing on Cuba, waiting until an election year to enact a policy that will do nothing to bring down the Castro regime but will hurt the Cuban people,” said Kerry spokesman Phil Singer.
“His policy has backfired; his support among Cuban Americans has dropped -- so now he’s launching negative attacks.”
Bush said he would make a supplemental budget request to Congress for an additional $2 billion in storm aid. He said there should be adequate funds in the federal agriculture budget to compensate citrus growers and other farmers for their losses.
Holding the hurricane briefing in Bush’s official capacity as president allows the White House to charge much of the cost of the Miami trip to taxpayers instead of to his campaign.
Times staff writer Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.