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Cuba Reemerges as Issue at White House and on Campaign Trail

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 22, 2008

U.S. policy toward Cuba, set in stone for decades and long relegated to the far reaches of presidential campaign debate, is enjoying a brief appearance on center stage this week.

On Tuesday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told a Miami rally that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) sends "the worst possible signal to dictators" by his stated willingness to meet with leaders such as the Castro brothers in Cuba. In a White House speech yesterday, President Bush declared a "Day of Solidarity with Cuba," hosted relatives of Cuban political prisoners and announced he will open a small window in strict U.S. sanctions, allowing cellphones to be sent to the island.

As Bush spoke at the White House, Obama prepared to travel to the epicenter of Cuban emigres in this country, Miami's Cuban American National Foundation, where he will address a sold-out lunch tomorrow. Although McCain and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) support current U.S. policy, Obama has pledged to lift new restrictions on travel and sending cash to Cuba that Bush imposed in 2004.

Cuba has surfaced as an issue during an unsettled time for both its residents and their relatives in this country. Ra¿l Castro, who assumed power in Havana four months ago from his ailing brother, Fidel, has introduced small economic liberalizations in the closed communist system and has promised further reforms.

Cuban Americans, who have historically been reliable Republican voters -- supporting U.S. sanctions and opposing any contact with the Castros -- have begun to split along generational and political lines. Divisions have deepened between those who support current policy and those who believe the U.S. embargo and isolation of Cuba have failed to bring significant change.

The White House this year put a new gloss on the criticism of Fidel Castro and the expressions of support for the Cuban people that it traditionally issues on May 20, which is Cuba's independence day. Early this month, the administration declared a new "Solidarity Day" on May 21, establishing a Web site and an international petition drive calling for Cuban democracy.

In a speech in the East Room attended by Hispanic administration officials, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and several Republican lawmakers, Bush ridiculed what he called Ra¿l Castro's "so-called reforms." He noted that "Cubans are now allowed to purchase mobile phones and DVD players and computers" -- although availability is limited and they are far beyond the means of most Cubans -- and will be able to buy basic appliances in 2010.

"Now that the Cuban people can be trusted with mobile phones," he said, "they should also be trusted to speak freely in public . . . now that the Cuban people will be allowed to have toasters in two years, they should stop needing to worry about whether they will have bread today."

The reforms, he said, are "a cruel joke perpetrated on a long-suffering people." He called on Castro to end restrictions on Internet access on the island, and said that the administration will take advantage of the lifted restrictions on cellphone ownership by changing current U.S. regulations to allow them to be sent to the island.

"If Ra¿l is serious about his so-called reforms," Bush said, "he will allow these phones to reach the Cuban people."

Francisco J. "Pepe" Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, called Bush's announcement "absurd." He urged the president instead to lift restrictions that limit Cuban Americans to one visit to the island every three years and to no more than $1,200 they can send to relatives annually.

Although cellular phones are on the lengthy U.S. list of items not allowed to be sent to Cuba, Hernandez said his organization and many others regularly ship them there. "With all due respect" to Bush, he said, "you can't eat cellphones."

The new "Solidarity" Web site, http://www.solidaridadcuba.org, listed a scattering of events scheduled yesterday in several European and Latin American countries, and two related Facebook pages, which as of yesterday evening featured approximately 300 fans.

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