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Taking a new approach to Cuba

Times Staff Writer

When the Clinton administration returned young castaway Elian Gonzalez in 2000 to communist-ruled Cuba, a regime his mother died trying to flee, angry Cuban exiles helped deliver Florida’s electoral votes and victory to Republican presidential contender George W. Bush.

Four years later, President Bush again carried this state. His strong support by Cuban Americans was rallied by his tightening of sanctions against Cuba and obtaining the release from a Panamanian prison of four local exiles considered heroes for having plotted to kill Fidel Castro.

But as the ailing longtime Cuban leader fades from the scene and his brother and successor, Raul Castro, loosens the strictures on a society hungry for change, this year’s presidential candidates are confronted with a more complex Cuban American electorate to woo.

Sen. Barack Obama plunged boldly into these uncharted political waters Friday when he called for “direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike” in a speech to the Cuban American National Foundation, a group that has become more moderate in recent years but remains a bastion of anti-Castro sentiment. Obama said he would “turn the page” on half a century of policy isolating Cuba.

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He acknowledged the political risk he was taking. Many of the wealthiest and most influential Cuban Americans still embrace an approach of trying to starve the regime into submission.

When Obama pledged to meet with that regime, the sparse applause in the crowded banquet hall spoke volumes.

Cuban Americans, who compose the most politically active and wealthiest constituency in this battleground state, have traditionally voted for the candidate with the hardest line against the government of their homeland.

For 47 years, trade with and travel to Cuba have been embargoed. The tightening of sanctions four years ago, limiting Cuban American visits to family on the island to once every three years, has swollen the ranks of exiles and emigres amenable to change.

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Despite the tepid response to Obama’s pledge to meet Cuban leaders “without preconditions,” a growing number of political strategists say that younger Cuban Americans and more recent arrivals have tired of the diplomatic deadlock.

That evolution has affected some in the older generation, as well. Foundation President Francisco “Pepe” Hernandez, once a staunch advocate of the diplomatic deep freeze, said a new approach was in order.

“The architects of future change in Cuba are not going to be those in power at the present time around Raul Castro, but people on the island are confronting a desperate situation,” Hernandez said. “To at least make an effort to engage the Cuban government is better than simply crossing our arms and waiting for things to change in Cuba.”

Jorge Mursuli, the 47-year-old founder of the national Hispanic civic engagement group Democracia U.S.A., says now is “a moment in time” when the Cuban American community is receptive to a new message like Obama’s.

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Mursuli’s late parents made him promise to take care of an elderly aunt in Cuba, something he is forbidden by U.S. law from doing because the 2004 tightening of sanctions restricted remittances to parents, siblings and children. (Obama also said Friday that if he were elected he would immediately repeal restrictions on how much money Cuban Americans can send back to the island and how often they can visit family.)

“This is something so basic, so guttural, so core that it transcends any ideology. How dare the government get between me and my mother’s dying wish,” Mursuli said.

Many first-generation exiles, though, cling to the policy of isolation.

“It is amazing that people are so naive. You can’t have a dialogue with the Castros. They know only monologue,” said Avilio Leon, a retired insurance agent. When Obama told his audience Friday, “I know what the easy thing is to do for American politicians,” he was recalling successful presidential candidates’ promises to maintain a hard line against Cuba.

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He said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee, had done just that when he pledged at a town hall meeting here Tuesday to maintain a status quo in policy toward Cuba.

McCain, meanwhile, has cast the Illinois Democrat as dangerously naive in offering to engage with leaders in Havana without first seeing political prisoners released and free elections held.

Obama’s Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, also in South Florida this week for a whirlwind stump, said nothing about how she would handle the U.S.-Cuban diplomatic conundrum. Her only reference to the communist-ruled island that looms large over this city of exiles was in a statement issued on Tuesday’s Cuban Independence Day holiday urging Raul Castro “to take an historic step to bring Cuba into the community of democratic nations.”

Current restrictions should be maintained until then, the statement said, with possible “flexibility” in letting Cubans here visit the island more often.

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South Florida’s Latino electorate has become more diverse in the last decade, and Cuban Americans, though still a two-thirds majority of that group, are no longer the omnipotent bloc that once determined virtually every elected office.

“Even within the Cuban electorate you now have some difference of opinion on partisanship and ideology,” pollster Sergio Bendixen said. “Before it was dominated by historical exiles, the people who came in the 1960s who strongly believed in a confrontation strategy.”

Second-generation Cuban Americans and those who have arrived with more recent migrations are now a majority within the community, and many have “more progressive or liberal points of view” than those who originally fled the revolution, Bendixen said.

He also points to impressive fundraising by three Democratic challengers to Miami’s Republican Cuban Americans in Congress.

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If any of the three representatives -- Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and brothers Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart -- is defeated in November, “that may be the biggest factor in helping the perception [of a changing Cuban American electorate] catch up with the reality,” said Julia Sweig, Latin American studies director at the Council on Foreign Relations.

At the least, U.S. citizens should be free to travel to Cuba, says Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

He acknowledges, though, that political risks are entailed in trying to break with the past in policy on Cuba.

For any White House contender to endorse an overture to the Cuban leadership, he said, “is a bit like asking a presidential candidate to go to Iowa and reject all farm subsidies.”

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carol.williams@latimes.com


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