How to Win the Cuban American Vote

By Jorge Mas Santos
Saturday, October 25, 2008

U.S. policy toward Cuba is at best static and at worst counterproductive, a source of increasing frustration to many Cuban Americans. This sad status quo contributes to the challenge that Cuban Americans will face on Election Day as, once again, particularly in Florida, our vote will probably help determine the next occupant of the White House.

The overwhelming majority of Cuban Americans expect the next president to abandon today's failed "wait and hope" policy and adopt a policy of support and engagement directed toward opening new avenues of freedom for the Cuban people as well as enhancing stability in the United States.

The Cuban American National Foundation, the nation's largest Cuban exile organization, has a predominantly Republican membership. Yet our fundamental interest is not partisan politics but helping to restore freedom to our brothers and sisters on the island.

We entered the new millennium expecting U.S. policy toward Cuba to follow the effective model of the West's support for Poland's Solidarity movement and civil society across Eastern Europe. It was our hope that by seeking to empower Cuba's independent civil society through unlimited support for the brave men and women on the island opposing the Castro regime, the energy and resources of the Cuban American community would be unleashed. To this end, we have been sorely disappointed.

As a direct result of President Bush's strategic blunder in 2004 restricting contact with the island, Cuban dissidents have experienced a significant reduction in material and humanitarian assistance. They are also subject to a ban on receiving cash remittances that help them and their families survive. The isolation of these and other Cubans has increased while Fidel Castro's departure from office caught the Bush administration off guard. Together, these developments have helped Raúl Castro consolidate control over the Cuban people.

These failures in U.S. policy undermine important American interests. Just as a democratic Israel is a key U.S. friend in a critical region, a democratic Cuba would be a crucial ally in furthering democracy in Latin America. Cuba is important, also, because the dissatisfaction of its people under the Castro regime is bound to have a significant effect on Floridians and Cuban Americans nationwide. It has in the past.

The next president must put a stop to America's spectator approach. To this end, we have presented the campaigns of Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama with simple recommendations based on two basic premises: (a) the status quo is unacceptable; and (b) change needs to come from within Cuba. Our specific recommendations are:

· Change the rules that make it impossible to send cash aid and allow direct, substantial and unfettered aid to Cuba's dissidents.

· Lift the 2004 restrictions on travel and remittances by Cuban Americans. Removing the handcuffs that have prevented us from becoming active participants in the development of Cuban civil society will make us agents of change.

· Maintain sanctions that diminish the Castro regime's access to hard currency, which it uses to help fund its apparatus of repression.

· Engage democratic and reformist forces in Cuba, including those in the military and in the civilian government. They need to know that they can count on the friendship and support of the United States.

· Rebuild our intelligence capabilities in Cuba; they have been dismantled over the past decade, creating a vulnerability in this nation's security.

Both presidential candidates have made clear that they want to help the Cuban people achieve freedom. But Barack Obama's forward-looking and proactive approach toward empowering the Cuban people is more in line with these proposals than John McCain's vow to continue the Bush administration's policy.

More of the same will not bring about freedom in Cuba, and more must be done to directly assist Cuba's opposition movement. Cuban Americans are wary of empty promises. But on Nov. 4, before casting ballots, we will ask ourselves two important questions: Who will adopt a proactive policy toward Cuba, and if dissidents in Cuba had a vote in our election, for whom would they vote?

The writer is chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company