The Miami Herald
Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Exile politics squeeze McCain


An advisor to Republican John McCain said that the candidate would not meet with a politically moderate Cuban-American organization because it ''embraced'' Democrat Barack Obama and his call for overhauling the Bush administration's Cuba policy.

The Cuban American National Foundation tried to set up a meeting with McCain last month in New Orleans on the same day he was attending a private fundraiser organized by one of the group's directors. The foundation is officially nonpartisan, but many individual members are politically active.

Lobbyist Ana Navarro, a McCain advisor who frequently travels with the campaign, did an interview with WAQI-710 Radio Mambí from New Orleans on June 4, the day after the fundraiser.

''I understand [the foundation] had intended to come to a fundraiser in New Orleans, that they offered a large sum of money in exchange for a private meeting with McCain. They were told no,'' she said. "I don't like talking about the foundation, because I consider them fairly irrelevant.''

She added: "It is obvious they have chosen, they have embraced, they have given a welcome and a forum to Barack Obama -- a man who wants to sit down with Raúl Castro without preconditions. . . . So I don't understand the insistence of the gentlemen in the Cuban American National Foundation in wanting to get together with John McCain when John McCain doesn't want to get together with them.''

The McCain campaign did not respond to repeated requests Tuesday for comment.

McCain and Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were all invited to the foundation's Cuban Independence Day luncheon in Miami in May. Only Obama appeared, and gave a speech to the group.

The foundation agrees with Obama's call to allow Cuban Americans to freely travel to Cuba and send money to family on the island, arguing that the Bush administration's crackdown separates families and has failed to usher in democracy. CANF officials disagree, however, with Obama's willingness to pursue ''direct diplomacy'' with the communist regime.

''CANF does not belong to either party,'' said New Orleans attorney George Fowler, a CANF director who attended Obama's Miami speech but decided to help organize the fundraiser in his hometown for McCain. ``Having Obama speak was not meant as an endorsement, but when you rock the boat, sometimes people are going to disagree.''

Fowler, who serves as chairman of the Louisiana Hispanic McCain Coalition, said the cancellation of the New Orleans meeting meant $200,000 in checks never got to the fundraiser. About 30 CANF members from Florida and other states had planned to attend.

''I think we have some Miami politics intruding into the Big Easy, and I don't think that's good for Sen. McCain,'' said Fowler, who is trying to reschedule the meeting between the senator and the foundation. ``Why would anybody who is supporting Sen. McCain desire to eliminate people who are also willing to help?''

The foundation's stated mission is ''advancing freedom and democracy'' on the communist island. But it has sparred with hard-line Cuban-American leaders over the merits of U.S. aid to dissident groups and the restrictions on travel and remittances.

CANF president Pepe Hernandez, who planned to go to New Orleans with chairman Jorge Mas Santos, blamed U.S. Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami for the meeting's collapse.

The two brothers are leading supporters of McCain in Florida and are vehement supporters of the current restrictions on travel and remittances, and Hernandez and Mas Santos are supporting their Democratic challengers. ''They are letting their own personal interests undermine the interests of the McCain campaign and the Cuban-American community,'' Hernandez said.

A spokesman for the Diaz-Balarts denied that they were involved in blocking the meeting, but added that ``it makes no sense to give ``special treatment to a group that does not represent the Cuban-American community.''