Cuban Americans have high expectations from President Bush and John Kerry as both campaign in Miami this week.
BY OSCAR CORRAL
With George W. Bush and Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry both campaigning in Miami in the next few days, expectations are high among Cuban Americans that they will present some new, effective anti-Castro plans.
The political stakes are high in South Florida, with Democrats and Republicans battling to win votes in the state's volatile Hispanic electorate.
In the past year, dozens of state and local elected officials have warned Bush through letters that he risks losing Cuban-American support if he doesn't get tougher on Castro. Bush's scheduled visit to Coral Gables on Thursday would be his first to Miami-Dade since the letters were sent to him.
''Cuban Americans are hungry for bold and dramatic new messages,'' said Republican State Rep. David Rivera, a critic of Bush's Cuba policy who says Cuban Americans are frustrated with hollow anti-Castro rhetoric. ``President Bush should use this as an opportunity to begin to galvanize and motivate Cuban-American voters for the upcoming election.''
Cuban-American Democrats also have high expectations. Miami-Dade Mayor and Senate candidate Alex Penelas said he planned to meet with Kerry this week. Penelas said it's important for Kerry to talk about Cuba.
Kerry ''has to have a strong position on Cuba, and he also has to be right on other issues, and that's where he has a clear advantage over Bush,'' Penelas said.
While Democratic strategists hope that a strong anti-Castro pitch by Kerry could help erode Cuban American support for Bush, Kerry will have to prove that his recent anti-Castro vitriol is not just an election-year conversion from a liberal Cuba record.
Florida is a key swing state in this year's election, and the state's nearly 500,000 Cuban American voters could be pivotal.
Kerry has not announced any major new plans or initiatives that he would implement if elected to speed up a Democratic transition in Cuba. Kerry spokesman Mark Kornblau said Kerry is not planning any Cuba policy announcements during his visit, but plans to roll out a Cuba initiative in the future.
''You can stick with the failed policies or try to find a better approach, and that's what John Kerry will do,'' Kornblau said.
Bush strategists say they feel Bush still has strong support among Cuban Americans.
But to send a message of support to Miami Cubans, Bush should express ''eager anticipation'' toward receiving a report next month from the Cuba Advisory Committee, which was formed to find ways to speed up democracy in Cuba, Rivera said.
He said Bush should also express a commitment toward ''speedy implementation'' of the committee's recommendations.
LACK OF PROGRESS
Other Republican Cuban Americans frustrated with the lack of progress in Cuba are leery.
''We are tired,'' said Republican Hialeah Councilman Esteban Bovo, who wrote a warning letter to Bush last year that was signed by dozens of local Republican leaders.
``We've listened to enough rhetoric from politicians looking for votes. We know Castro is evil, that he is a dictator, that he violates human rights. We need to know what they are going to do about it.''
Bush supporters say he has been a loyal ally in the anti-Castro fight, and point to his 11th-hour phone call to Mexican President Vicente Fox on Tuesday asking Mexico to support a United Nations Resolution censuring Cuba for human rights violations.
According to published reports, Bush also called the president of Paraguay to ask for support.
Paraguay abstained from the vote, but the U.N. voted 22-21 in favor of the resolution.
''It says a lot about the president's commitment to do all he can to get a free and Democratic Cuba and highlight the human rights violations occurring daily in Cuba,'' U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said.
``I don't know how Kerry can repackage himself to the Cuban-American community and say he will be tougher on Castro than Bush.''
Cuban American Democrat Roland Sanchez-Medina, a board member of the Cuban American National Foundation and the Cuban American Bar Association, is planning to meet with Kerry next week and advise him on Cuba issues.
''I think [Kerry] is going to have to make some sort of statement with
respect to Cuba,'' Sanchez-Medina said. ``If he wants to get more of the
Cuban-American vote than he currently has, he is going to have to take
a stronger position. I think the time is becoming ripe.''