Edwards, in Florida, Voices Support for Easing Limits on Travel to Cuba
By James Rainey
Times Staff Writer
ORLANDO, Fla. — Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. John Edwards on Monday supported an easing of restrictions on travel to Cuba, a policy he said would help spur political change in that nation and that his spokesman predicted would win votes in Florida's crucial Cuban American community.
In comments to two local television reporters here, Edwards said he and Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, would reverse a Bush administration policy that limits Cuban Americans to one visit with their relatives in Cuba every three years.
The Democratic policy would allow annual travel to Cuba and permit additional trips in special cases, such as visiting an ailing relative. It would also restore a previous policy allowing Cuban Americans to send money to their families on the island, a practice President Bush banned in a crackdown meant to pressure Fidel Castro's government.
"First of all, given Castro's history and being the brutal dictator he is, I think it is important for the embargo to remain in place," the North Carolina senator said of business sanctions in place for decades. But he also said, "I think what the administration has done with these changes [in travel rules] is make it in many cases more difficult" for Cuban Americans.
At a morning rally in Miami, Edwards pledged that his party would "keep the pressure on Castro and support those who are fighting for freedom."
Democrats' efforts to improve their support from Cuban Americans could be key to winning Florida on Nov. 2. In the 2000 presidential election, about 400,000 Cuban Americans voted, 80% of them backing Bush. The then-Texas governor carried the state by fewer than 600 votes, giving him the presidency.
Although a hard line against Cuba was once considered the only politically savvy stance in the state, Kerry and his supporters have said they believe that a more open travel policy would be more effective in pressuring Castro. They also predict that it will yield political dividends.
Cuban American Democrat Raul Martinez, mayor of Hialeah, near Miami, has said that the Bush travel restrictions are "hurting the Cuban families, which only alienates us from the Cuban people."
The travel cutbacks have opened something of a generational divide among Cuban Americans in Florida, observers say. Older exiles typically want contact with their homeland kept to a minimum, whereas many younger people support a liberalized policy.
Edwards spokesman Mark Kornblau denied that the Democrats' position was softer than Bush's. He called it "tough and smart" to try to bring about change in Cuba by allowing more Americans to visit.
Kornblau also expressed skepticism that the Cuban American vote remained a monolithic bloc that would go to the candidate with the hardest line toward Castro.
"There are plenty of Cuban Americans who are voting on jobs and education and healthcare," Kornblau said.