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John Kerry Attracting More Cuban Voters

John Kerry Attracting More Cuban Voters

• A new poll published by the National Democrat Network (NDN) suggests that President George W. Bush’s support among Florida's right-wing Cuban-Americans is significantly eroding.

• Senator John Kerry has sought to attract more Cuban-American voters by toughening his language against Castro and attacking Bush on the highly unpopular travel ban and cap on remittances that his administration implemented in July.

• Kerry is hoping to capitalize on recent trends suggesting that the Cuban-American base in Florida is gradually experiencing an ideological realignment towards the Democratic Party.

• The Democratic candidate’s “Statement of Principles on Cuba” illustrates a telling divide between him and his opponent on issues important to Little Havana, and suggests that Kerry would lift the family travel ban and remittances cap upon taking office.

A poll published in September by the National Democrat Network (NDN), a Washington-Based 527 political organization, suggests that the Cuban-American vote in Florida will not be as slanted towards George W. Bush as it was four years ago. As a result, both President Bush and Senator John Kerry are scrambling to energize support among Cuban-American voters in the crucial swing state. Bush, who received 82 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Florida in 2000 (a state which he won by a paltry 537 votes), is losing his stranglehold on the state’s Cuban-American base. The NDN poll shows that, overall, 72 percent of Cuban-American voters favor Bush, 19 percent back Kerry and 9 percent are still undecided in the run up to election. Underscoring this fact, The Guardian of London reported on October 5 that Kerry is attracting majorities of key Cuban-American groups. For example, 58 percent of U.S. born Cuban-Americans favor Kerry over Bush, and immigrants who arrived in Miami after the Mariel boat lift of 1980 favor Kerry by 11 percentage points. The data from the NDN poll suggests the Senator could succeed in attracting a significant number of Florida’s Cuban-Americans to the Democratic column on November 2. This has accelerated efforts by both campaigns to court Cuban voters, and has even led John Kerry to reach out to hard-line anti-Castro voters who are discouraged by the misguided pandering of the current president.

Kerry toughens his language on Castro
With new data indicating that the Democratic candidate might be able to make significant gains amongst Cuban-Americans in the election, some of Kerry’s advisors have recently encouraged the Senator to toughen his language on Cuba. In a reaction to Secretary of State Colin Powell’s slip that Castro poses a “diminished threat” to the United States since the end of the Cold War, Kerry offered a rebuttal that could have been taken out of the Clinton playbook, attempting to move to Bush’s right in bashing Havana. Regarding Powell’s statement, Kerry charged back, “[it is] shocking that the Bush administration is telling the world that Fidel Castro no longer poses a problem for this hemisphere. Fidel Castro is a tyrant who brutally oppresses the Cuban people […] Castro's Cuba is the last bastion of communism in our region and a major obstacle to the triumph of democracy in this hemisphere.” This statement, to date Kerry’s most extreme remark about Castro, was aimed at attracting disgruntled hard-line Miamians disillusioned by Bush’s policy on Cuba. In response to Kerry’s rejoinder, Powell claimed that his words were taken out of context, and told the Knight Ridder news organization on October 8, that Castro has “never stopped being a problem” for the hemisphere. When asked about the incident, a State Department official refused to speak about Powell’s comments, telling COHA that the “Secretary’s comments stand for themselves.”

An anonymous Kerry campaign official also told COHA that the Senator’s statements about Cuba did signal a “slight shift” in his language. However, the official downplayed the significance of Kerry’s statement, saying that he is focusing “primarily on mainstream issues because that is what he is defending himself on right now. He is trying not to take too much of a stance on issues like Cuba right now.” Despite those comments, it appears that Kerry believes many Cuban-Americans, including some hard-liners, have not yet decided who they are going to vote for, and the Senator is making a play to attract any undecided voters in the crucial swing state. This presumably includes those who believe that President Bush over-stepped his bounds when he turned to his discretionary powers and in July implemented a stringent travel ban and put a cap on remittances that can be sent to Cuba. Recent explosive developments in Little Havana have also suggested that an ideological realignment may be brewing inside the Cuban-American community. This includes the surprising move by Joe Garcia, who left his post as executive director at the notoriously conservative Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) to help lead the liberal “Hispanic Project” at the NDN this fall.

The “Hispanic Project” is a voter drive designed to help swing Florida and its 27 electoral votes, as well as other states with large numbers of Hispanic voters, like New Mexico and Nevada, to the Kerry column. When Garcia was with the unabashedly right-wing CANF, he was a key player in Cuban-American politics, and garnered a great deal of support for many anti-Castro programs. His move to the NDN reflects the shift that is taking place in Florida’s Cuban-American community, including changes in political allegiance by hard-liners who were previously among the most fervent backers of the GOP. Garcia’s move to the NDN also illustrates just how disillusioned some Cuban-Americans have become with President Bush. Garcia is likely to play a critical role in the days before the election, helping to attract a growing number of Cuban-Americans to the Kerry camp.

Kerry’s comes out against Bush’s unpopular measures
Kerry’s recent attack on the Bush Administration and his tough language against Castro is evidence of just how important the Cuban vote is for Kerry. It also provides an example of how foreign policy positions are being manipulated by both candidates to promote their own political ends. As recently as late September, Kerry had voiced support for a measure passed in the House of Representatives that called for ending the travel ban to Cuba. Kerry said of the measure, “[T]he House voted…to undo George Bush’s anti-family policy of placing inhumane restrictions on the ability of Cuban-Americans to visit their relatives in Cuba.” In any event, that bill is expected to be defeated in the Senate, and Bush has threatened a veto if it ever reaches his desk. Kerry has also voiced support for abolishing the cap on remittances that are allowed to be sent to relatives in Cuba. The travel ban and the remittances cap have proven to be extraordinarily unpopular among a growing number of Cuban-Americans. Those that dislike the Bush Administration’s new regulations are most likely to vote for Kerry. These include migrants who arrived in the U.S. after the Mariel boat-lift of 1980 and U.S.-born Cuban-Americans. The Bush administration has even received criticism from hard-line anti-Castro groups like the CANF, which may help explain Garcia’s departure from the organization and Kerry’s new rhetoric. Even a slight shift of traditional voting behavior among Cuban-Americans could win Kerry the state and ultimately the election.

Despite shifts in rhetoric, Kerry’s position on Cuba is moderately liberal
Kerry’s official position on Cuba, entitled “Statement of Principles on U.S. Cuban Policy,” has not changed since it was first published June 5, 2004 on his campaign website, JohnKerry.com. The statement, though markedly different from the current president’s position on Cuba, echoes some of Bush’s recent assertions about increasing U.S. efforts to bring about regime change on the island. Kerry plans to “support effective and peaceful strategies that will hasten the end of the regime as soon as possible, and enable the Cuban people to take their rightful place in the democratic community of the Americas…[he] want[s] to work with all Americans…to bring about a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba, putting the focus on Castro’s failures instead of [U.S.] policy.” Kerry criticizes both the Bush travel ban and the restrictions on cash remittances to the island, noting that “President Bush’s recent election year move to significantly restrict cash remittances to Cuban families and virtually eliminate family travel must be seen for what it is—a cynical and misguided ploy for a few Florida votes.” Kerry also stops short of calling for overt American military action to remove the Castro regime, saying, “I am not going to pander and promise something that no president in the last 45 years has been able to deliver. I want to take steps to…work toward a democratic solution and the ultimate end to the Castro regime in a peaceful and democratic way.” He also “promotes the interchanges of ideas that will begin…to lay the foundations for economic prosperity and an independent civil society,” increasing humanitarian trade such as food and medicine to the island and the “free flow of information to Cuba.”

Although Kerry’s stance on the Cuban government and Castro has at times been difficult to pin down, he has been more or less consistent in his support for the Cuban people. In June, New York Times’ columnist David Brooks criticized the candidate for his remarks about Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá’s Varela Project. Brooks’ denigration of Kerry came after the arrest of 75 anti-Castro human rights activists for compiling signatures calling for new civil rights legislation. Kerry was actually taking a moderately liberal position because many claim that the events that brought about the detentions were different from what was commonly reported in the U.S. Brooks reported that Kerry told Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald on June 6 that the Varela Project “has gotten a lot of people in trouble . . . and it brought down the hammer in a way that I think wound up being counterproductive." Although those remarks seemingly contradict an official statement on the candidate’s website in which he endorses the work of the Varela Project, Kerry is consistent in his opposition to the administration’s inappropriate and counterproductive meddling in Cuban affairs. Kerry’s statement, titled “Strengthening U.S. Relations with Latin America and Creating a New Community of the Americas,” reads, “[I]n Cuba Kerry supports Oswaldo Payá and his brave colleagues on the Varela Project. At the same time, it is important not to undermine dissident movements from the outside—particularly by the actions of this Administration.”

The Kerry campaign official’s remarks to COHA and the Senator’s rebuttal of Secretary Powell indicate that Kerry will support influencing regime change in Cuba and other window-dressing moves if it increases the number of Floridians prepared to vote for him. This does not necessarily indicate a departure from his previous stance on Cuba. While firmly opposed to Castro’s government, Kerry has not sought to punish the Cuban people, and has not supported measures that tighten the embargo against Cuba, including the Helms-Burton legislation of 1996. Although Kerry originally supported the legislation, which reinforced the sweeping embargo implemented by President Kennedy in 1962, he eventually voted against the final version of the bill when it reached the Senate floor. The Kerry campaign recognizes that every vote in Florida is essential to winning the highly sought-after battleground state, and it is willing to do everything it can to attract votes in order to ensure victory, even if it means appeasing Little Havana’s right-wing anti-Castro groups.

Government funds to anti-Castro groups is not likely to change under Kerry
Both Kerry and Bush’s remarks about influencing “peaceful democratic regime change” appear to favor a general trend of increasing U.S. funding of anti-Castro activities in Cuba and the United States. U.S. Foreign Aid (USAID), which has spent approximately $7 million on its “Cuba Program” during the 2004 fiscal year, has, with Bush’s backing, asked for that amount to be increased to $9 million for the next fiscal year—a more than 20 percent increase from 2004, and a rise of more than 33 percent from the roughly $6 million USAID spent on Cuba in 2003.

Financial support for dissident Cuban groups through quasi-governmental agencies like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which receives funds from the U.S. government and funnels money into other Cuban-dissident organizations, has also increased. Though statistics for the NED’s 2004 budget allocations have not yet been published, the organization, which dates back to the Reagan-era, and which many believe was founded in part to carry out covert operations on behalf of agencies like the CIA, spent $1,143,372 on Cuba in 2003. This was an increase of more than 20 percent from the $769,000 it allocated toward Cuban projects in 2002.

That regime change in Cuba has become a greater priority, and even official U.S. policy, may not be indicative of what Kerry’s Cuba policy will look like if he is elected. Kerry’s voting history on the issue is more progressive than his recent rhetoric implies. Although little suggests that Kerry would lift all sanctions against Cuba, or radically decrease funding anti-Castro dissident groups if he wins in November, his actual Cuba policy is likely to markedly contrast with the present Bush doctrine.

This analysis was prepared by David Oppenheim, COHA Research Associate.

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