Florida's Cuban vote

October 01, 2004|By Jules Witcover

MIAMI -- In George W. Bush's 537-vote Florida victory over Al Gore in 2000, the anchor was the Cuban-American community, which gave him an estimated 82 percent of its turnout. This time, he is counting on this special constituency to deliver big for him again.

To shore up this vote, the Bush administration recently targeted $29 million for assistance to dissident groups in Cuba and strengthened delivery of TV Marti's anti-Castro signal to the island. According to Camila Ruiz of the Cuban American National Foundation, both moves have pleased the community's 450,000 voters in the state.

But another administration action intended to demonstrate toughness toward Fidel Castro may be backfiring, to the degree that Mr. Bush's overwhelming share of the Cuban-American vote in Florida could be reduced, making Democratic nominee John Kerry more competitive here down the stretch.

Many Cuban-Americans in Florida are up in arms over two changes in regulations that limit their ability to visit relatives on the island and to send them money to help them deal with the dire economic conditions that exist under Mr. Castro.

In June, the administration initiated new rules restricting such travel from once a year to once every three years, and enabling only immediate relatives -- parents, grandparents and siblings -- to make the trip and to send wire transfers to Cuba.

Ms. Ruiz, whose foundation supported the first administration actions but not the travel and money-transfer restrictions, acknowledges that the latter have created some political problems for the president. "But I don't think that people are going to vote en masse for John Kerry," she says, "because he hasn't offered a clear picture of what his Cuban policy will be."

The Kerry campaign, however, sees the restrictions as a wedge with which to pry away a fair share of Mr. Bush's Cuban-American vote. Emilio Vazquez, who runs the Kerry office in Miami's Little Havana section, says, "Everyone wants change on the island, but putting limits on travel and remittances is not the way to go about it."

The Cuban community here, he says, is roughly divided into older immigrants who left the island after Mr. Castro came to power in 1959 and those who arrived in Florida after the so-called Mariel boatlift of 1980. The former group, he says, is intensely anti-Communist, and the younger group, with more close relatives left behind, is most disturbed by the new restrictions and could express its dissatisfaction in the voting booth, or by staying away.

Sergio Bendixen, a veteran Democratic pollster and consultant now working for the New Democrat Network, which is running pro-Kerry ads in the Cuban-American community, says only 20 percent of Cuban-Americans here still have family on the island. But if enough of them retaliate against the president at the polls, he says, it could mean 50,000 to 100,000 votes denied him Nov. 2.

Much may depend, Mr. Bendixen says, on whether the heavily Democratic black vote in Florida turns out. About a million Florida blacks voted in 2000, 90 percent for Mr. Gore, but only half that number voted in the off-year elections of 2002. But pro-Kerry independent groups such as Americans Coming Together are spending heavily to generate a huge black vote that would make cuts or shifts in the Cuban-American vote for Mr. Bush particularly significant.

Mr. Bendixen theorizes that Mr. Bush may have tightened the travel and money regulations to placate and energize his base of hard-line anti-Castro Cubans who saw him take strong action against Saddam Hussein but not Mr. Castro. Also, he says, the Bush strategists probably didn't expect the negative reaction from other Cuban-Americans over the new restrictions.

But a Bush campaign field director in South Florida, Lenny Alcivar, says that Cuban-Americans "understand that for the good of a free Cuba, the president is going to have to continue to take appropriate measures to squeeze the life out of a brutal dictatorship."

The question is how many of them won't consider the new restrictions appropriate, and therefore will deny the president enough of their votes to give Mr. Kerry a chance in Florida on election night.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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