Friday, November 14, 2008

Pensacola Paper Urges End of Embargo

Free Cuba -- end the embargo

Editorial • November 14, 2008

Pensacola News Journal

Already there's talk that a Barack Obama administration will relax U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba and allow cash remittances by Cuban-Americans with family there.


And while he's at it he should do something about the counterproductive trade embargo.

For starters, it would be good for Pensacola. The Port of Pensacola once did a thriving trade with Cuba, and still ships frozen food there under a food-related exemption to the embargo.

A Cuba with more money to spend means more business for the port.

More importantly, we say open up Cuba to the full force of American tourism and business, and see how long Raoul Castro can maintain the kind of tyrannical grip his brother maintained.

Fidel always had the United States to blame for economic conditions in Cuba, pointing to the embargo and the ban against family members sending money to needy relatives.

In the end, who was hurt the most? The poverty-stricken people of Cuba.

Castro and his coterie of apparatchiks don't suffer. They have plenty to eat, nice homes and can travel to much of the world.

Certainly, Cuba's government is dictatorial. But if we can trade with, and U.S. citizens can travel to, Russia, China, Egypt and other such bastions of freedom, we can handle access to Cuba.

So let's be honest. This is about Florida's electoral votes, which presidential candidates fear might hang in the balance of the anti-Castro vote in South Florida.

But the specter of a supposedly free country barring its supposedly free citizens from traveling to a nation 90 miles from its border because of domestic politics is shameful.

Does anyone think that if Cuba had as much oil as, say, our trading partner Venezuela — a country whose rabidly anti-American leader would love to emulate Castro — that these restrictions would be in place?

We didn't think so.

End the travel restrictions, cancel the embargo — and begin the process of freeing Cuba.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Russian Advice to Obama; Boosts Ties with Cuba

Russian Foreign Min Urges US To Lift Cuba Trade Embargo

Tuesday November 11st, 2008 / 19h13

MOSCOW (AFP)--Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday urged U.S. president-elect Barack Obama to lift Washington's 46-year-old trade embargo against Cuba.
"We hope that the voice of the international community, which has made itself heard again at the United Nations, will be taken into consideration," Lavrov said.

"I heard that relations with Cuba were among the questions on which the administration of the president-elect Barack Obama were going to reflect and take decisions," he said following talks with his Cuban counterpart, Felipe Perez Roque, during a visit to Moscow.

The U.N. General Assembly last month again called on the U.S. to lift the embargo.
The Russian foreign minister also described military and technical co-operation with Cuba as an "important element" of the partnership between the two countries.

Such cooperation, added Roque, was always aimed at "reinforcing the defensive potential of Cuba."

During the long U.S. election campaign, Cubans rooted for Obama, believing his victory would overturn the U.S. economic embargo on the communist island state, which was hardened under U.S. President George W. Bush.

Obama said during the election campaign that as soon as he became president, he would allow unlimited family travel and financial remittances to Cub, although he would maintain the economic embargo.


Medvedev: Russia to boost economic, political ties with Cuba 2008-11-11 21:58:24

MOSCOW, Nov. 11 (Xinhua) -- Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Tuesday that Moscow will advance economic cooperation and political ties with Cuba.

"We've overcome the pause that appeared in our relations in the past decade and today our contacts are intensive and friendly," Itar-Tass news agency quoted Medvedev as saying during a meeting with visiting Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque.

Medvedev hailed cooperation between Russia and Cuba in the world arena, saying Cuba has been and remains one of Russia's "key partners in Latin America."

Medvedev accepted an invitation from the Cuban leadership for an official visit to the Caribbean country and Cuban leader Raul Castro is expected to visit Russia next year, Itar-Tass said.

Earlier Tuesday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called military cooperation an important component of a Russian-Cuban partnership, but Roque said "no documents concerning military cooperation will be signed" during his stay in Moscow.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has pledged to reinforce Russia's global status, including its presence in such countries as Cuba amid rows with the United States over Washington's plans to deploy anti-ballistic missile components in Central Europe.

Roque rejected the possibility of resuming Russia's military presence in Cuba but vowed to boost energy cooperation and economic ties.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Miami Expects Small Obama Steps

Smaller steps will come first in Obama's policy on Cuba

Published: Friday, November 7, 2008 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 7, 2008 at 12:36 a.m.
Sarasota Herald Tribune

MIAMI - Campaigning before Cuban-Americans here last spring, Sen. Barack Obama promised that if elected he would immediately lift Bush administration restrictions on their travel back to the communist island and on the amount of money they can send home to relatives.

Sen. Barack Obama, at a Cuban Independence Day celebration in Miami last May, tells the Cuban American National Foundation that wants to pursue direct diplomacy with Cuba and Latin America.

The president-elect is widely expected by Cuba specialists to make good on that promise, but it is unlikely he will quickly move to end or ease this country's four-decade embargo that severely restricts trade and tourism with Cuba.

Much will depend on whether Cuba responds positively to the Obama administration by releasing political prisoners, improving its human rights record or moving toward a market economy, said Dario Moreno, a Florida International University political science professor.

"If Cuba makes some sort of gesture toward the United States, it could begin a diplomatic process," Moreno said.

President Bush has taken a hard line toward Cuba, imposing tough restrictions on travel and remittances in 2004, hoping to hurt the Castro government by choking off a major source of dollars.

Cubans in the U.S. can visit the island only once every three years and can send only quarterly remittances of up to $300 per household to immediate family members. Previously, they could visit once a year and send up to $3,000. The administration also tightened restrictions on travel for educational and religious groups and strengthened enforcement against travelers and businesses that subvert the embargo.

Obama has said he is open to a dialogue with Cuban President Raul Castro, who succeeded his ailing brother, Fidel, two years ago. He has also said he is open to diplomacy if there were an opportunity to advance U.S. interests and the cause of freedom for Cubans and that his administration would boost economic aid to the region and work with other countries on drug trafficking and alternative energy.

Some exile groups are optimistic that Obama's regional approach to diplomacy would work.

Individual Americans sharing resources and information and networking with their Cuban counterparts would help foster democratic change on the island better than cutting off their access to friends, family and money, said Carlos Saladrigas, chairman of the Washington-based Cuba Study Group, a nonpartisan organization of business and civic leaders who favor opening relations with Cuba.

"It's going to be more proactive," said Francisco Hernandez, the president of the Cuban American National Fund, which hosted an Obama campaign stop in May. "The policy of the Bush administration has been a wait-and-see policy in which for eight years they've been waiting and praying for the conversion of Fidel and Raul Castro to democratic leadership."

In winning Florida, Obama prevailed even in counties that re-elected three Republican Cuban-Americans known in Congress for staunchly defending hard-line policies against Cuba -- Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and brothers Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart.

John F. Kennedy: Shortly after taking office in 1961, he allowed the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion that attempted to
overthrow Fidel Castro's fledgling government. It failed after Kennedy blocked airstrikes that would have supported the invading exiles, earning
the Democratic Party undying hatred among some Cuban-Americans. In 1962 he
imposed the economic embargo against the island that remains today. Later that year, the world came close to war when the Soviet Union placed nuclear
missiles on Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis ended two weeks later with the Soviets agreeing to remove the missiles for a U.S. pledge not to invade the island.

Jimmy Carter: He tried to improve relations with Cuba in
the 1970s, opening a diplomatic mission in Havana and allowing Cuban one in Washington. But Castro undercut Carter's 1980 re-election bid by announcing
that any Cuban who wanted to leave could, sparking the Mariel boatlift. About 125,000 Cubans, including some criminals and mental patients, fled to
the U.S., creating a refugee crisis.

Bill Clinton: He instituted the current "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy that allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to stay but repatriates most interdicted at sea. He also returned to Cuba 6-year-old
Elian Gonzalez, rescued after his mother died when their boat sank as they tried to reach Florida. Elian was placed with relatives in Miami, but his
father -- and the Castro government -- wanted him back. Clinton used armed federal agents to seize him from the relatives' home and return him.

Miami Races Analysis

Cuba issue vs. the power of incumbency

Standing in front of the big screen in the Kendall sports bar, Democrat Joe Garcia congratulated U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart for a hard-fought win, as the image of Republican John McCain giving his concession speech flickered behind him.

It was election night, and the crowd of college students, black activists and white and Hispanic supporters had been counting on Garcia's win in what polls showed as a nail-biter. This was supposed to be the year that tested Cuban-American voters' fierce allegiance to the GOP. Yet all three Cuban-American incumbents in Congress won handily even as Democrat Barack Obama made inroads among younger Cuban Americans and seized the non-Cuban Hispanic vote statewide.

Did the Cuba issue really fall from the political radar as some pollsters told us?

Or have Cuban Americans not budged an inch, as the Republican winners now tell us?

The answer is more nuanced.

In fact, Garcia's loss -- by 6 percentage points in a district with about 25 percent Cuban Americans -- has more to do with non-Cuban whites and Hispanics and blacks in his district, which covers Southwest Miami-Dade and a chunk of Collier County. Thousands embraced Obama but didn't bother to vote in that congressional race.


Nicaraguan and Venezuelan voters also delivered for the Republicans. A Bendixen & Associates exit poll showed they voted for McCain. Like the Cubans, they fled Marxist regimes and fear promises of change will mean spreading the misery around.

No question that the incumbents' tough stand on communist Cuba was instrumental in getting the elderly exiles out to vote. They delivered for both Diaz-Balart brothers and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, whose diverse district stretching from Key West to Miami Beach was never at risk.

U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez had a titanic slugfest filled with dirty GOP campaign ads that focused on Martinez's conviction on corruption charges, later overturned on appeal.

Voters in Democrat-rich Broward County seemed unable to decide. Many simply didn't vote for either. The undervotes resulted in Democrat Martinez getting only a few hundred more votes than Diaz-Balart, who spent three months walking the southern Broward portion of his district.


Martinez, a hugely popular mayor in heavily Cuban blue-collar Hialeah for years, won in only one precinct in his ''city of progress.'' Even if many of the voters in Hialeah are more recent arrivals who would prefer to see Bush administration travel restrictions lifted to visit family they left behind, the majority chose Lincoln, one of the architects of the restrictions. But many split their vote, handing the presidency to Obama, who has promised to ease those limits on travel and remittances.

Florida International University professor Dario Moreno, whose preelection polls on the congressional races proved more prescient than any santero's seashell clairvoyance, said the results prove the power of incumbency.

He thinks Garcia lost in the tightest of the three races because the Democrat didn't do enough on Miami Cuban radio to make his case. ``He didn't try to peel off Cuban votes from Mario.''

Mario's district, which has seen a seismic shift in voter registration that has lost about 20,000 Republican voters, still managed to deliver. Bottom line, said Moreno: ``People underestimate how hard it is to unseat an incumbent.''

Nor can we underestimate the passion and pain of exile.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Analysis of Cuban American vote

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Obama first Democrat to win Florida's Hispanic vote

Marking a historic shift, Sen. Barack Obama won a majority of Florida's Hispanic vote statewide and nearly tied Sen. John McCain in Miami-Dade, where Republicans had long dominated the Hispanic vote.

No Democratic presidential candidate had ever achieved either milestone since the exit polling of Hispanics first began in the 1980s, pollsters say.

Nationwide, Obama won the Hispanic vote by a wider margin, garnering 66 percent to McCain's 32 percent, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

In Florida, Obama won 57 percent of the Hispanics on Tuesday, compared to 42 percent for McCain, according to exit polling by Bendixen & Associates, a Democratic pollster.

By comparison, President Bush won 55 percent of the state's Hispanic vote to John Kerry's 44 percent in 2004, according to exit polls.

Polls indicate the state's Hispanic vote may now be divided. On one side are conservative older Cuban Americans, who vote reliably Republican. On the other are younger Cuban Americans coupled with an expanding number of non-Cuban Hispanics, who tend to lean Democratic.

''This is a demographic revolution happening in Miami-Dade County,'' said Fernand Amandi of Bendixen & Associates, which has been heralding a Hispanic electoral shift for years.

According to Bendixen's exit polls, Obama won 35 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Miami-Dade County, nearly 10 points higher than Kerry's showing in 2004. Within that community, the generational difference was stark. For example, 84 percent of Miami-Dade Cuban-American voters 65 or older backed McCain, while 55 percent of those 29 or younger backed Obama.

For evidence of the potential divide among Cuban Americans, consider Miami's Pujol family.


Alexandra Palomo-Pujol, 24, helped persuade her mother Rose, a lifelong Republican, to back Obama -- but those arguments failed with her grandparents, who emigrated from Cuba in 1959.

''Over three generations, we grew up in completely different places and we all see things differently and it's hard to see eye-to-eye,'' said Palomo-Pujol, an executive assistant. ``It's hard not to have those differences change the most important relationships in your life.''

The family's debates over the election at times ended in slammed doors and days spent without speaking, Palomo-Pujol said.

Her grandfather Jose Luis Pujol regularly called into Cuban-American radio shows before the election, telling listeners that an Obama victory would mean that soon the little pioneros would be part of the U.S. education system. The ''pioneers'' are the children in Cuba's communist education system who are taught to support the revolution with mottoes such as ``we will be like Che [Guevara].''

Meanwhile, Rose Pujol, 53, became an enthusiastic Obama supporter, attending the Democratic Convention, volunteering for the Florida campaign and putting up a life-size cutout of Obama in her Coconut Grove offices.

When she went to tell her parents that she and her daughters were backing the Democratic candidate, they were appalled.

''I could see the hair rising up on their arms, even though I kept telling them that it's OK to realize 50 years later that the party you're part of needs to be revamped,'' Pujol said.

Despite the political divide in families like the Pujols, Cuban-American political observers say this year's presidential election did not signal a departure from the past.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, a leading embargo lobbyist, said the polls suggest Cubans may have simply voted with their pocketbooks in the presidential contest and cast traditional votes for Miami-Dade's three long-standing Cuban-American lawmakers -- Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart -- to hold the line on Cuba sanctions.

''The message from the community was clearly a reaffirmation of the Cuba policy. There's no doubt about it,'' Claver-Carone said. ``They were comfortable taking the risk with an unknown president, but they've got the insurance policy, per se, with the members of Congress.''


But Jeff Garcia, campaign manager for Raul Martinez, Lincoln Diaz-Balart's opponent, said his candidate lost the race among non-Hispanic whites in Broward County -- not Cuban Americans. Although Obama captured 65 percent of Broward voters, Martinez got only half. The congressional district includes Hialeah and southwest Broward.

Yet in all three congressional contests, the subject of Cuba -- be it the decades-old embargo, lifting travel restrictions or Fidel and Raul Castro -- rarely arose on the campaign trail or over the television airwaves.

This was especially true among the growing non-Cuban Hispanic communities that contributed to Obama's victory.

That group has swelled the voter rolls in recent years with largely Democratic or independent voters. Statewide, Hispanic Democrats now outnumber Hispanic Republicans, 513,000 to 445,000.

The stark differences among the communities in Miami-Dade were apparent in a precinct-by-precinct analysis.

Stretching west along Flagler through Sweetwater, and in Hialeah, the mostly Cuban voters came out more than 2-1 for McCain. Not so in West Kendall, Doral, downtown Miami and Homestead, where non-Cuban Hispanics dominate. Obama won them all.

''I think ultimately Obama was able to connect with Hispanics because they were able to identify with what he stands for, because his story is the story of every immigrant,'' said Colombian-American Nelson Hincapie, 35, of Miami.

Hincapie wasn't always an enthusiastic Obama supporter. Like many Latin American immigrants, he was also concerned about how his vote might affect his South American homeland. He was planning to vote for McCain because of Obama's opposition to the free trade agreement with Colombia.

In the end, his doubts about McCain's ability to handle the rigors of the presidency led him to support Obama.

He eventually volunteered for the Democrat's campaign with several of his Colombian-American friends -- voters who had wanted to back McCain.

''The truth of the matter is we live here, our kids are here, and we have to think about that when we're voting,'' he said.

Miami Herald staff writers Lesley Clark and Rob Barry contributed to this report.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Latin American Leaders Prompt Obama on Cuba

Latin America Leaders Seek to Mend U.S. Ties With Region, Cuba

By Helen Murphy

Nov. 6 (Bloomberg) -- Latin American leaders seized on the election of Barack Obama as an opportunity to mend the U.S.'s rocky relations in the hemisphere, with two renewing calls for the end of the Cuban trade embargo.

``The hour has arrived to establish new relations among our countries and with our region,'' said an e-mailed statement from Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez regularly demonizes the U.S. ``The historic election of an Afro-descendant to the head of the most powerful country in the world is a sign that the change that's been carried out in South America may be reaching the doorstep of the U.S.''

The calls to normalize relations with Cuba after an almost five-decade estrangement came from Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, one of the region's closest U.S. allies, and Bolivian President Evo Morales, one of its most antagonistic leaders.

``I hope the blockade of Cuba ends, because it no longer has any justification in the history of humanity,'' Lula said yesterday in Brasilia. His comments were echoed an hour later in La Paz, Bolivia: ``My great desire is that Mr. Obama lifts the economic embargo on Cuba,'' Morales said.

Cuba is the ``most symbolically important issue'' for Latin America, said Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. ``Even a statement like he's going to review the Cuba policy would itself be a step forward.'' Such a move would ``appeal to the region without much economic or political cost,'' Shifter added.

Chavez on Nov. 2 also called on Obama to end the embargo.

More Travel

Obama said during the campaign that he won't lift the blockade, while making other pledges related to Cuba that would be a significant shift in American policy. He said he would ease travel for Cuban-Americans to go to Cuba and bring money to relatives, and close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Cuba and the U.S. have had strained relations since Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959. The U.S. imposed an economic embargo on Cuba in 1962, and President George W. Bush's administration recently sought to strengthen it by cracking down on U.S. dollar transactions between the Cuban government and international banks.

Castro, who handed governing authority over to his brother this year, on Nov. 4 wrote that Obama is ``without a doubt more intelligent, refined and even-handed than his Republican adversary.''

`New Era'

Mexico's President Felipe Calderon sent a letter to Obama urging ``a new era'' of trust. Chile's President Michelle Bachelet and Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe also made public statements of congratulations and called for closer ties.

Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who has criticized the U.S. role in creating the global economic crisis, said in a letter to Obama: ``I know we can count on you, and I want you to know that you can count on my sincere friendship.''

The U.S. will face an uphill battle to restore relations in the region and turn away from the image Bush presented, said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Bush's approval rating in the region sank during his two terms, with Argentina giving him a low of 6 percent, compared with 33 percent for Castro and 38 percent for Chavez, according to a 2006 poll by Santiago-based Latinobarometro.

That image differs from 2001 when Bush took office and made Mexico his first official overseas trip. There were hopes that Bush, who speaks Spanish and has a Mexican sister-in-law, could revitalize the region. Then al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. and Bush turned his attention to fighting terrorism.

New Image

``For the U.S. to recast its image in Latin America its going to need a whole slew of initiatives to refresh the region's memory that a relationship with the U.S. is important,'' said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington-based research group.

``Obama will be offered an opportunity on a silver platter in the region to make amends,'' said Weisbrot.

Excluding Colombia, which gets about $600 million annually from the U.S. to help fight the war on drugs, financial incentives to the region are ``pretty meager,'' Birns said.

Colombia may be the country with the most to lose.

Obama has said he is against scheduling a congressional vote on a free-trade accord with Colombia. Concerns about violence against labor leaders and low worker organizing rates in the nation haven't been resolved and labor rights must be addressed in a meaningful way before a vote, Obama has said.

Bush repeatedly said Uribe is his closest ally in the region and the U.S. should back the nation in its bid for free trade. He made approval of the Colombia agreement a priority for his last year in office.

``Obama will criticize Uribe harshly, something Bush never did, and will be tougher on him over human rights abuses,'' said Myles Frechette, U.S. ambassador to Colombia from 1994 to 1997, and now an independent consultant on trade for Latin America and Africa. ``A trade agreement with Colombia will be much more difficult but not impossible. It may come eventually with conditions attached.''

To contact the reporter on this story: Helen Murphy in Bogota at

Impact of Obama in Cuba

CUBA-US: Obama Awakens Hopes for a Thaw

Written by Patricia Grogg

Wednesday, 05 November 2008

HAVANA, Nov 5 (IPS) - U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has a positive image among most Cubans, who are hopeful regarding his promises of loosening some restrictions towards the island, although the government-controlled media here have refrained from commenting on the future of relations between the two countries.

The Democratic candidate who will become the first African-American president of the United States on Jan. 20 may also become the first to sit down to talks with the Cuban government after nearly half a century of conflict.

During his campaign, Obama pledged to lift travel restrictions so that Cuban-Americans can visit their families in Cuba, and to eliminate caps on the remittances they can send back to their families -- measures that were adopted in 2004 by the Republican administration of President George W. Bush.

Obama also said he was willing to pursue direct diplomacy with the Cuban government, without preconditions.

”I hope that with him as president, relations will be eased, and there won't be so many restrictions,” a 62-year-old woman told IPS, after complaining that in November 2007 she was refused a visa for the second time, on the argument that she posed a risk to U.S. interests.

”My parents and siblings have lived over there for years, and I never had any problem visiting them before. But for the Bush administration I'm a danger, and I can't see my mother, who is 92 years old and sick and wants to see me,” she added, asking not to be identified ”to avoid further complicating matters.”

A shift in Washington's policy towards Cuba would have several advantages for Cuban society, in the view of Reverend Raymundo García, director of the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue, one of the few civil society organisations in Cuba that regularly analyses human rights questions.

Obama's offer ”to be open to dialogue with Cuba is a watershed for his country and his government, because it would require a dismantling of what has been called an embargo based on democracy and human rights questions,” he said.

The protestant minister said he had no doubts that a new attitude on the part of Washington would immediately contribute to bringing about closer ties between families divided between the two countries and would help the Cuban economy as a result of increased travel and remittances. ”God willing, this will be the start of an end to the mutual recriminations, accusations and spitefulness that have caused so much harm,” he said.

Academics who spoke to IPS, however, said they do not foresee significant short-term economic benefits, especially because of the financial crisis in the United States, which has already translated into a drop in remittances towards the rest of the Americas, as well as a reduction in travel due to soaring air ticket prices.

”Without a doubt, the situation could improve in the next few months, and that would be a positive signal, but for now, Obama's priority is to improve the U.S. economy and rebuild the nation's prestige,” economy Professor Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva told IPS.

He also said, however, that he has no doubts that if the U.S. Congress passes laws favourable to Cuba, Obama will not veto them. ”He wouldn't have any reason to do so, and besides, the hard-line Cuban-Americans are Republicans, to whom Obama is not beholden.”

Luis René Fernández, assistant director of the University of Havana's Centre for the Study of the Hemisphere and the United States (CEHSEU), agrees that Cuba is not ”a priority” on Washington's agenda, but said a new stance towards this Caribbean island nation could ”be important for the world's perception of the United States.”

”That is, small changes in the policy towards Cuba, a degree of flexibility, an openness to diplomatic negotiations, however limited, could help improve something crucial to U.S. politics: the country's image, which has severely deteriorated after eight years of an administration that has been deeply unpopular at a global level,” said Fernández.

In the analyst's view, a more pragmatic Cuba policy could provide ”collateral benefits” to the government of Obama, who will take office only a few weeks after the Cuban government headed by Raúl Castro celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, on Jan. 1, 2009.

Up to now, only former president Fidel Castro has publicly referred to the two candidates who faced off in Tuesday's elections. In his most recent column, he described Obama as ”more intelligent, educated and level-headed” than his Republican rival, John McCain.

”Obama came to these elections with the backing of the dominant class in the United States,” Ramón Sánchez-Parodi Montoto, international relations analyst and former head of the Cuban Interests Section in the United States wrote in an article Wednesday in Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba's governing Communist Party.

Opinions varied among dissident groups in Cuba. ”I don't believe in proposals for dialogue with this government,” Berta Soler, a member of the Ladies in White, a group of wives and daughters of imprisoned dissidents who were accused of ”conspiring” with the United States, told IPS.

By contrast, Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo said that for Cuba, the change that lies ahead in Washington could open up a new horizon of ”infinite” possibilities and ”would also be an opportunity for enriching dialogue with Latin America.” Menoyo is the head of Cuban Change, which he describes as ”an independent opposition organisation.”

Monday, November 3, 2008

Bardach: If Obama Wins

Florida: Ann Louise Bardach

As the final countdown begins, Team Obama has Florida’s 27 electoral votes in its crosshairs. To that end, Bill Clinton rallied the troops with Obama at a massive rally in Orlando on Wednesday night, and Al Gore was there on Friday. Democrats have learned the hard way that nothing can be taken for granted in The Sunshine State and have 350 paid staff statewide that have registered about 700,000 more voters than Republicans. In Miami-Dade County alone, the Obama campaign has 11 field offices.

Early voting began on October 20 and has been unusually heavy, with many waiting four hours on line. Whatever the outcome on November 4, the fate of the 48-year-old U.S. Embargo on Cuba and American policy toward Latin America will also be decided. The fight for Florida is being waged largely in a parallel universe, a good deal of it via Spanish-language media. It has long been an article of faith that a Democrat needed 35% of the Cuban vote to take Florida.

Should Obama carry Florida, restrictions on travel to Cuba and remittances for Cuban-Americans will likely end immediately. Soon after, diplomatic relations will likely be restored. He faces a steep climb in Cuban Miami, but has made headway and he is now leading in Florida by 3 to 4 points.

In the over-caffeinated precincts of Dade County, conspiracy perfumes the air. More than one Obama staffer told me Republican operatives are directing phone banks to urge folks to call the powerful Spanish-language radio talk shows to accuse Obama of being a “comunista” and a “marxista.”

One popular target among callers is Obama’s background as a “community organizer,” which has been likened to that of running a CDR [Committees for the Defense of the Revolution], neighborhood watch groups in Cuba renowned for their snitching. Joe Centorino of the State Attorney office said he was not surprised to hear of such doings in Dade, but responds, “What is the crime here? Remember that not all dirty tricks are illegal.”

Florida Congressional Races

Trouble In Florida

by Ann Louise Bardach

October 30, 2008 | 8:32pm

BS  Bottom - Bardach Miami 134

The fate of the U.S. Embargo of Cuba rests on down and dirty campaigns in South Florida

I have been covering the nexus of Miami—Havana-Washington politics for almost two decades. It is a scorched-earth terrain of gladiator combat between Cuban strongman Fidel Castro, a small, dedicated army of his would-be assassins, and the Cuban exile powerbrokers who have run Miami and dictated policy to the White House.

I have reported on how this battleground has changed—from the mid 1970s, when bombs went off sometimes daily in Miami, to the post-9/11 era, when violence was shuttled to the side in deference to the ballot box.

This election is the end game: on November 4 the fate of the US Embargo against Cuba will likely be decided by the outcome presidential race, along with the political future of its most ardent champions, two members of Congress who also happen to be nephews of Fidel Castro: Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart.

Cuba hardliners Diaz-Balarts “will have to be crow-barred out of here,” says a Democratic rival.

The stakes are huge and the campaign is as down and dirty as any in Florida’s colorful history as the brothers try to fight off challenges from their Democratic rivals, both Cuban-Americans.

Dade and Broward counties, which include Miami and its surrounding suburbs, are the most populist in the state, with about a half million Cuban-American voters. The balloting there will likely determine which presidential candidate nails Florida’s 27 coveted electoral votes, along with the fate of the 48 year old U.S. Embargo against Cuba. During this election season, John McCain has morphed into a fierce hardliner on Cuba, aligning himself with the two Republican congressional incumbents.

Barack Obama has said that he is open to diplomacy with Cuba, regardless of whether Fidel or Raul Castro are in power, and has vowed to rescind the Bush Administrations’ harsh restrictions on travel and remittances. That is heresy to the Diaz-Balarts, who are also the sons and grandsons of a famous Cuban politicians, which means that there is little sunlight between the personal and the political in Miami. Think of the Castro/Diaz-Balart saga as the House of Atreus, an Hispanic Hatfields and McCoys or simply as a five decade running telenovela.

The Cuban-American community has undergone dramatic changes, with the majority now backing dialogue with Cuba. Still, hardliners control many of the major levers of power in Miami, their influence felt in media, law enforcement, even the courts.

Determined to maintain their power, the Diaz-Balarts have aired a series of ferocious attacks against their opponents. Last week, a voting scam was uncovered that threatens to end up in the courts, joining a long list of incidents that have made Florida synonymous with dirty elections.

"I don't think any other place in the United States has had such a history of absentee ballot voter fraud,” said Kendall Coffey, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. “Miami has a legacy of lawlessness going back to the 1920’s.”

Two weeks ago, after absentee ballots arrived in the mail, a gentleman calling himself “Juan” visited several supporters of Raul Martinez, the Democratic former mayor of Hialeah who is challenging Lincoln Diaz-Balart. “Juan” offered the voters assistance in filling out their ballots, which he then promised to deliver to the elections office. “Juan” had been dispatched to pro-Martinez household by callers claiming to work for Martinez. In fact neither “Juan” nor his dispatchers work for Martinez nor the Democratic Party - and no one knows what happened to the ballots.

The Miami Herald traced the phone number given to the duped residents to a consultant who works for Diaz-Balart. One duped voter summoned Jeff Garcia, the campaign manager for Martinez, who was able to videotape “Juan” as well as his car and license plate. Another mysterious visitor named “Angel” purporting to be from the office of Miami-Dade’s election supervisor was also videotaped. Cornered by a Martinez volunteer, “Angel” said he was employed by the Diaz-Balart office.

Jeff Garcia then delivered affidavits from the misled voters to the State Attorney’s office. But those wise in the ways of Miami are not holding their breath.

State Attorney Kathy Fernandez Rundle has been famously lax about enforcement, although following local media coverage, she has become more engaged. Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s spokesman told me that the fraud allegation is “a ludicrous charge coming from a desperate campaign.”

The Martinez camp disagrees, and notes that misrepresentations by telephone violate federal law. It gave the Juan tapes to local TV and also enlisted high-powered Miami lawyer, Michael Band. “Win or lose this election, we will pursue this case,” Garcia said.

The “Juan/Angel” saga caps a long list of election funny business in Dade County.

  • In 1998 the election of Miami’s Republican mayor, Xavier Suarez was overthrown by the courts for an array of irregularities. For example, a certain Manuel Yip had died in 1994, yet voted absentee every year thereafter. The presiding judge also ruled that some 5,000 absentee ballots were fraudulent. One Miami vegetable peddler had witnessed more than 70 absentee ballots while some of the city's poorest had been paid $10 to vote for Suarez.
  • In 2002, while chair of Florida’s House Redistricting Committee, Mario Diaz-Balart, in one of the great gerrymandering triumphs in recent memory, carved out a congressional district tailor made for himself. Then he stepped in and won.
  • In 2004, absentee ballots were reportedly sold on Little Havana's Calle Ocho for $25 apiece.

Democrats are mindful and have turned out a small army in Florida that has registered about 700,000 more voters than Republicans. “The Democrats are showing a Republican level of discipline this year,” said Miami columnist Jim DeFede. “They have money to burn and they are burning it.”

They will need every cent as the Diaz-Balarts are using all the weapons in their considerable arsenal. “They will have to be crow-barred out of here,” says Democratic rival Joe Garcia.

But the playing field is hardly level. Radio Mambi, which claims to be number one in the Spanish-language radio market in South Florida, is run by a colorful character named Armando Perez-Roura, who has become a kingmaker in exile politics. He is ardently anti-Castro and pro –McCain and Diaz-Balart, as is Mambi celebrity Ninoska Pérez Castellón, who hosts a morning show with Perez-Roura, another in the afternoon solo and another on Miami television.

“That’s three shows a day that Ninoska has to campaign against me,” complains Martinez. “Ninoska attacks me 24 hours a day, every single day,” says Garcia, “and I have complained to Univision [Mambi’s parent company] that the station is inciting violence.”

Florida's Cuban-American politics are known as The Third Rail. Of the one million registered Hispanic voters in the state, half are Cuban-Americans. It was always the conventional wisdom that a Democrat needed 35% of the Cuban vote to take Florida. But if Obama carries Florida with less--as may prove to be the case--politics in The Sunshine State will never be the same.

Once a rock-solid GOP constituency, the Cuban-American community has splintered. John McCain (and the Diaz-Balarts) will carry the majority of first-wave exiles--about 300,000 older, whiter Cubans known as el exilio historico, who arrived in the early 1960s. But even hardliners on Cuba tend to be social progressives who support bilingual education, expanded Social Security and Medicare spending, and a laissez faire immigration policy. That puts them at loggerheads with McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin, a Christian Right conservative. And the Iraq War, is as unpopular on Calle Ocho as it is in Manhattan.

Another slice of el exilio historico will not be voting for Obama because of his skin color, usually indicated in Miami by tapping two fingers against one’s forearm. Some refer to him as el negro, others allude to the nube negra [the black cloud].

Still pollster Sergio Bendixen doesn’t think racism is as strong a factor in la comunidad as it once may have been. The majority of Cuban-Americans in South Florida today are post-Mariel, having come after 1980, and most of them are of mixed raced background.

Polls at press time have Obama leading McCain in Florida by 3 to 4 points. Bendixen says early exit tallies indicate Obama is nailing about a third of older Cuban-Americans, who went only 25% for Kerry. But Obama is ahead two-to-one among the 100,000 who were born in the U.S. and doing even better with the 100,000 or so who came after 1980. Moreover, Obama is leading among the state's half million non-Cuban Hispanic voters--Colombians, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Nicaraguans.

The Diaz-Balarts, both in squeaker races, are fighting for their political lives. One ad put up by Lincoln Diaz-Balart begins with a mug shot of Martinez and the word “guilty” running across the screen. What the ad doesn’t tell viewers was that Martinez’s conviction for extortion was reversed on appeal – or that the charges in 1990 were leveled by an acting US attorney, Dexter Lehtinen, the husband of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who stepped in and took the congressional seat that Martinez seemed to have a lock on until he was charged.

Raul Martinez has responded with his own blitz of commercials charging Diaz-Balart with, among other things, accepting money from an indicted Puerto Rican politician, which has been vehemently denied by Diaz-Balart.

Joe Garcia, formerly Dade’s Democratic Party chair, was also a past Executive Director of the Cuban-American National Foundation. Once a hardline exile organization, CANF has shifted towards the political center and has endorsed Barack Obama. Mario Diaz-Balart's ads tie Garcia to the collapse of Enron and other misdeeds. “You can still do the Big Lie in Miami,” said Garcia. “And get away with it. This is a town where the basic institutions have collapsed.“ (Calls to the office Mario Diaz-Balart for a response were not returned.)

While the economy remains the central issue in Miami as elsewhere, Garcia never misses an opportunity to remind voters about some tricky family history. “The last time the Diaz-Balarts were removed from power,” quips Garcia. “It took a Revolution and we ended up with Fidel Castro.”

To that end, he has produced the most talked about ad in Miami. It begins with circus calliope music and shows Fidel Castro gesticulating wildly with a red letter text below him reading “Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.” Then we see Mario Diaz-Balart making virtually the same gestures with the red letters below him reading “U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.” Next up is the scowling face of his brother Lincoln Diaz-Balart. The images are repeated: Fidel, Mario, Lincoln. The dizzying music continues.

Then the message appears on screen: “This November ... Let’s end the family circus. Vote against Fidel’s nephews.


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