New Cuba Travel Limits May Sway Voters
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2004; Page A06
Carlos F. Lazo, an American military medic on 15 days' leave from Iraq, wanted to see his teenage sons in Cuba. He flew to Miami, only to be told that new Bush administration rules designed to punish Cuba made it impossible.
"I just wanted to see my children for one day. In the next eight months in Iraq, who knows what could happen?" Lazo said yesterday. "I got very mad. I am not voting for George Bush this year."
Lazo's anger is at the heart of a charged debate over Cuba policy and Florida politics that could prove pivotal in the Nov. 2 election. In a gamble designed in part to capitalize, Democratic challenger John F. Kerry is taking a position different from that of hard-line Cuban exiles courted most often by both parties and considered the Cuban Americans most likely to vote.
Opponents of the measures include the Cuban American National Foundation, a no-nonsense anti-Castro organization at the forefront of U.S. policy toward Cuba for two decades. The group issued a statement saying the administration's new measures "created a greater divide" among Cuban Americans.
President Bush chose Wednesday, barely four months before the election, to impose some of the most restrictive measures ever on Americans' travel to Cuba and on Cuban Americans' practice of sending money to relatives on the island.
The goal is to squeeze Cuban President Fidel Castro by denying hard currency to his wheezing economy. But the first to cry out have been Cuban Americans, who now can visit only once every three years, with no exceptions. Money can be sent only to immediate family members.
"We're not waiting for the day of Cuban freedom, we are working for the day of Cuban freedom," Bush said May 6 in accepting the recommendations of a government commission headed by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. A Powell adviser called the 423-page document a "decisive and integrated strategy."
Many critics and supporters alike viewed the policy as a play for Cuban American voters, whose greatest concentration is in Florida, a state that gave Bush a 537-vote victory margin and the White House in 2000. But Democrats see an opening in a combination of changing demographics and the Bush administration's policy.
"There's going to be the kind of recoil that they haven't really seen before," predicted Dan Gelber, a Democratic member of the Florida House. Kerry supports an economic embargo against Cuba, but favors lifting travel restrictions and increasing remittances.
"If the Democrats want to make the new Cuba travel regulations a referendum on President Bush's candidacy in November, all I can say is bring it on," said state Rep. David Rivera, a Republican who criticized Bush last year for being too soft.
"The initiative will serve to galvanize and motivate Cuban American voters to turn out in support of the president," Rivera said. "The people who vote are older people, and the people who are most supportive of these measures are the hard-core, historic exiles."
Miami pollster Sergio Bendixen is among the specialists attempting to test that tried-and-true view. He estimates about 250,000 voters in Miami-Dade County fit Rivera's designation of "historic exiles," those who arrived between Castro's triumph in 1959 and the late 1970s.
"It's two theories," Bendixen said. "We won't know who's right until Election Day."
Conducting a poll last month for the centrist New Democratic Network, he found that 89 percent of that cohort favored Bush, 8 percent chose Kerry and 3 percent were undecided. The results from two other groups he polled were quite different.
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