Los Angeles Times
September 21, 2004

Bush's Cuban American Support May Be Slipping

New limits on travel and remittances to Cuba have turned some former backers against the president, surveys show.

By John M. Glionna
Times Staff Writer

CORAL GABLES, Fla. Cuban American Jorge Mursuli is livid over how he says President Bush forced him to break a promise made at his mother's deathbed.

He vowed to her to send money and medicine to his aging aunt still living in Fidel Castro's Cuba. But Bush's new policies restricting travel and remittances to the island a move aimed at further isolating its communist leader have stifled that goodwill gesture.

Mursuli, who grew up in a Republican household, says Bush is playing politics with his culture's close-knit family ties, appealing to older hard-line Cuban exiles who want Castro overthrown at any cost. He says the president's choice comes at a price: Mursuli, 43, won't be voting for Bush in November.

Recent voter surveys suggest that the solid support for Bush among Cuban Americans may be slipping a bit, especially among the young.

"Family is the center of who we Cubans are," Mursuli said. "You could be my best friend, but come between me and my family and there's no choice there for me. It's over. I'll push you out of the way. Because blood is thicker than politics."

In 2000, when Bush won Florida by 537 votes a victory that carried him to the White House he garnered 82% of 450,000 votes cast by Cuban Americans.

A poll by a Democratic group released last week showed Bush still significantly ahead of Sen. John F. Kerry among Cuban Americans, but by a lesser margin: 70% said they supported the president, 19% his Democratic rival; 11% were undecided. The results have given Kerry supporters hope in a state pollsters say remains too close to call.

Another poll conducted in August by the William C. Velasquez Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit Latino think tank, showed that support for Bush among Cuban Americans had dropped to 66%.

The most recent poll, commissioned by the New Democrat Network, which is targeting Latino voters, found that Bush's support remained strongest among Cuban Americans who arrived before the 1980 Mariel boatlift, when Castro allowed more than 120,000 residents including hard-core criminals to flee the island.

That older wave of refugees is considered the most politically active in the community and remains vehemently anti-Castro.

Those who arrived later or who were born in this country tend to favor Kerry, according to polling done this summer by the New Democrat Network. That poll showed Kerry leading Bush, 58% to 32%, among Cuban Americans born in the United States; among those arriving after 1980, Kerry led, 40% to 29%, with 31% undecided.

Bush supporters insist that the president's appeal among Cuban Americans remains unshaken. And they say Bush's chances of repeating his overwhelming margin of 2000 are enhanced this year by the campaign of Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican seeking to become the first Cuban American elected to the U.S. Senate.

However, many younger Cuban American voters say they are angered by a series of perceived administration missteps, especially the stricter travel and financial sanctions.

The economic sanctions, announced in May, allow Cuban Americans to visit the island only once every three years instead of once a year. They also limit visits to 14 days and curtail daily spending limits.

The sanctions also more narrowly define who in Cuba can receive money or gifts from sources in the U.S. Extended family such as aunts, uncles and cousins are now disallowed. Studies show that 75% of Cuban exiles who arrived after 1980 wire money to relatives in Cuba an estimated $1 billion a year.

Some observers say Kerry could win Florida if he manages to chip a few percentage points from Bush's Cuban American bloc.

"If the president doesn't get 82% in November, that would be very bad news for the Republicans," said Damian Fernandez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

This month, Kerry opened a campaign office in Miami's Little Havana. He has criticized the Bush administration's policy in Cuba, saying he supported "principled travel" to the island, including family visits.

The Republican leaning of older exiles hinges on a strong anti-Cuba policy dating back to the Eisenhower administration. Many remain bitter over President Kennedy's refusal to provide air cover during the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

Although Democrats say they don't expect to match the 39% of the Cuban American vote that then-President Clinton won in 1996, they predict Kerry will do better than Democrat Al Gore did in 2000. Gore won just 17% due in part to the Clinton administration's decision to return young Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez to his father in Cuba.

"This time there's no Elian factor," said Raul Martinez, the Cuban American mayor of Hialeah, near Miami, and a Democrat. "While young Cubans once registered Republican to please their parents, they now think for themselves. We're no longer a one-party community."

But Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) scoffs at such comments.

"This isn't the first time we've heard about a big decisive swing among Cuban American voters then the election comes and nothing changes," Diaz-Balart said.

He predicted that Bush would exceed his 2000 showing, saying: "Florida may be divided but Cubans Americans are not. You won't see a more united voting bloc anywhere in America. I'd bet my house on it."

At Versailles restaurant in Little Havana, a political gathering spot where older Cuban exiles puff on Dominican cigars and sip strong coffee, Hector Travieso says reelecting Bush is the way to be rid of Castro.

The retired pest-control worker says he spent three years in a Cuban prison for his political beliefs and saw a friend tortured and killed. He can't understand how Cuban exiles or their children can travel to a place still under Castro's control.

"These people didn't see what Castro did to his own people," Travieso said. "But we older Cubans lived inside the monster, and we know that you have to keep fighting that old dictator. That's what President Bush plans to do."

The Bush administration angered many Cuban Americans of all ages in July 2003, when the U.S. repatriated 12 Cubans intercepted after they hijacked a Cuban government boat. The State Department negotiated a promise from Castro's government to impose prison terms of up to 10 years instead of executing the refugees, as it had done in similar cases.

That same month, the Coast Guard arrested 12 other exiles and then sank the 1951 Chevy flatbed truck they had made seaworthy by attaching a buoyant pontoon of 55-gallon drums.

For Miami resident Fernando Amandi, a 55-year-old retired bank executive and former Bush supporter, that move also sank his support for Bush.

"The ingenuity and desperation of those people to turn a pickup truck into a boat in order to gain their freedom the U.S. government should have displayed it as a symbol of freedom for Cuban Americans," he said. "Instead, they sunk it and sent those people back to an uncertain fate. This is a compassionate president?"

After the incidents last year, more than a dozen Republican Florida legislators sent a letter to the White House and top GOP officials expressing their "great disappointment and outrage" over a Cuba policy they called "offensive and misguided."

"We fear," they wrote, "the historic and intense support from Cuban-American voters for Republican federal candidates, including yourself, will be jeopardized."

That political wake-up call, many say, resulted in the administration's new sanctions. The rules angered Tessie Aral, a Cuban American who voted for Bush in 2000. She tells of a Miami man suddenly denied access to his 24-year-old autistic son in Havana. The man committed suicide, on the same day that Bush made a speech in Miami promoting his new policy.

That's when the 46-year-old travel agent changed her political allegiance. And her 72-year-old mother, Maria Brieva, recently registered to vote for the first time just to help defeat Bush. "Bush's Cuba policy is a shameless political ploy," Aral said.

Jorge Mursuli is haunted by not being able to keep the promise he made to his dying mother to help her oldest sister in Cuba she is 80 years old, never married and has no children to support her.

"My aunt is a old lady who needs things," he said. "The president is asking us to choose between ideology and family. It's a stupid question. Don't make me choose."