The Miami Herald
Thu, Sep. 02, 2004

Push aims at luring Cuban voters

Democrats accelerated the push for Cuban-American voters, hiring Cuban American National Foundation executive director Joe Garcia to spread the Democratic agenda.


Joe Garcia, the public face of one of the most influential Cuban-American groups in the country, is stepping down as executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation to lead South Florida recruitment efforts for a Democratic organization.

The move comes as both parties step up their efforts to court the massive Cuban-American voting bloc that has the potential to sway a close election in Florida.

President Bush is to share the stage tonight at the Republican National Convention with his former housing secretary, Mel Martinez, who, if elected, would be the first Cuban-American U.S. senator.

But Garcia and officials with the Washington, D.C.-based New Democrat Network, said his

hiring underscores what polls show is an emerging political

division in a community traditionally viewed as staunchly Republican.

The New Democrat Network is an independent group that raises money in support of moderate Democrats. In 2002 it launched a Hispanic outreach effort to boost the party's standing among the fastest-growing group of voters.

Garcia, who starts immediately, will serve as a senior advisor to the group's president, and will be responsible for developing a strategy to lure more Cuban American and other Hispanics to the Democratic ticket.


''This is a symbol of how the Cuban-American community is changing. This is something that a few years ago no one would have thought possible,'' New Democrat Network President Simon Rosenberg said. ``We're putting up competition for the Cuban vote.''

Garcia, executive director of CANF since 2000, is no stranger to politics. He lost a County Commission race to Miguel Diaz de la Portilla in 1993 and was appointed to the Public Service Commission by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles.

He said Wednesday that the community needs to broaden its approach beyond the Republican Party.


''We should advocate for a better long-term Cuba policy with anyone who will listen,'' Garcia said. ``The Democrats are listening.''

Garcia's tenure at CANF included the defection of more than a dozen members who split to found the rival Cuban Liberty Council, an unabashed hard-line organization that the White House has sought to court.

But moderates say Garcia is credited with making the foundation approachable to newer waves of Cuban exiles, who are at times at odds with the historic exile community.


Foundation chairman Jorge Mas Santos hailed the move, suggesting it would benefit Cubans to ensure they're represented by the Democratic party.

''We don't want the extreme left of the Democratic Party to guide the Cuba policy or thinking on Cuba,'' Mas Santos said. ``It is important to keep all the bases covered because we don't know who is going to win in November and we can't be so irresponsible as to put Cuba's fate in the hands of one person or one party.''

A poll released in June by

the New Democrat Network suggests a widening gap and some moderation in a community long viewed as monolithic. According to the poll, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry enjoyed a commanding lead over President Bush among Cuban Americans born in the United States and a decided edge among Cubans who arrived in the country after 1980.

The poll, though, showed Bush crushing Kerry among the largest -- and most politically active and vocal -- group of Cuban-American voters: those who arrived before the 1980 Mariel boatlift.

Those voters backed Bush by more than 80 percent and the president campaigned in Miami last week to shore up their support -- his first visit to Miami since he sought to bolster his Cuban-American base by hardening the U.S. line against Castro amid complaints that he had failed to live up to his campaign promises.


Bush's tougher approach on Cuba has endeared the president to hard-liners who had all but threatened to skip his reelection, but has triggered a backlash from more moderate Cuban Americans who want to be able to travel and support relatives in Cuba.

Garcia and other Cuban-American leaders have suggested that the new restrictions -- which cut travel to Cuba back from yearly to once every three years -- will only end up hurting families.

Those are the voters Garcia will likely pursue.

''There is no question that our job is to make sure we have a credible agenda that speaks to Hispanics,'' he said.

Republicans who pushed for the strict restrictions questioned how Garcia can sell Kerry, who has been accused of waffling on Cuba.

''Joe Garcia is going to have a very tough time defending John Kerry's terrible record on Cuba, particularly in comparison to President Bush's proactive policies to hasten the regime's change,'' said Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican who recently proposed getting even tougher on people who travel to the island by taking away state benefits.


Garcia said Bush hasn't been particularly effective in helping to oust Castro.

''I think what you're going to find is that we embrace a policy that promotes civil society, that pushes for change,'' he said.

Herald staff writer Elaine de Valle contributed to this report.