- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2003

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush criticized his brother’s administration for sending 12 Cuban hijack suspects back to certain punishment in Fidel Castro’s prisons and faulted the president for lacking a “coherent policy” toward the Caribbean island.

The incident has also angered the Cuban-American community of South Florida, a group of loyal Republican voters who feel responsible for George W. Bush’s 537-vote victory in the state that vaulted him to the White House in 2000.

In an interview published in yesterday’s editions of the Miami Herald, the Florida governor said he didn’t often diverge from the positions of his brother, “but from time to time I have to disagree, and this is one of them.”

The 12 Cuban refugees were accused by the Cuban government of hijacking a boat July 15 and sailing toward the United States. The boat was intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard two days later and everyone on board was returned to Cuba July 21.

Jeb Bush said the Cubans were sent back with the understanding they wouldn’t be quickly tried and executed like the three men who attempted to hijack a boat in Havana Bay in April. The governor suggested, however, there are no guarantees that the men will get the 10-year prison sentence promised.

“Despite the good intentions of the administration to negotiate the safety of these folks, that is an oppressive regime, and given the environment in Cuba, it’s just not right” to have sent the Cubans back, the governor said.

The fact that the president’s own brother has rebuked the administration’s decision is an indication of the kind of political damage that has been inflicted on President Bush since the incident.

Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, said Florida’s Cuban-American community — which gave 81 percent of its 450,000 votes to the president in the 2000 election — “is incensed.”

“This community fulfilled its obligation to this administration and this party,” Mr. Garcia said. “It is time for the president to meet his obligations.”

Sergio Bendixen, owner of the Miami-based polling company Bendixen and Associates, said the Bush administration can’t convincingly cast itself as anti-Castro to the Cuban-American community while repatriating those who risked their lives for freedom.

“The U.S. government was highly critical of the Castro government” for the hasty execution of the previous hijackers, Mr. Bendixen said. “And now to stop people in the high seas doing the same thing and to send them back, obviously that’s very controversial here.”

A House member who supports a hard line against Castro’s communist regime said there is no doubt that this incident “hurts the president politically” and he can only make up for it by toughening what the member sees as the soft Cuban policies of the Clinton administration in the coming months.

“We expected [changes] anyway, but now he’d better do them,” the congressman said on the condition of anonymity. “If something doesn’t change, you’d better believe there’d be problems.”

Florida’s Cuban-American delegation in the House — Republican Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart — urged the Bush administration not to send the purported hijackers back to Cuba, and strongly condemned the decision to do so when it was made.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said his understanding was that the decision to send the Cubans back never made it to the president’s desk, but was instead carried out by “midlevel bureaucrats” in the State Department.

“The bottom line is that clearly it was a huge mistake,” the lawmaker said. “Getting assurances from Castro [for the fair treatment of the refugees] is about as reassuring as getting promises from the Iraqi minister of information.

“The fact of the matter is that certain members of the administration, the bureaucracy, actually negotiated the terms of the sentence before there was even a semblance of a trial. I concur with Jeb that it should never have happened,” he said.

The White House gave conflicting answers when asked why the Cubans were returned. Spokesman Scott McClellan said at his daily press briefing yesterday that the president’s policy is “one of a safe, orderly and legal migration.”

The current “wet feet, dry feet” policy stipulates that if Cuban exiles reach U.S. soil, they can apply for asylum, but if they are stopped at sea, they are generally returned to Cuba.

“We expect that policy to be implemented and carried out in a consistent way,” Mr. McClellan said. “But our views and our support for the people of Cuba in their struggle for freedom is very clear.”

Yet asked later in the briefing whether sending the men back to Cuba was consistent with administration policy, Mr. McClellan said: “No. I was informed that’s not the case.”

The Cuban-American vote has proven critical to winning Florida in recent presidential races. President Clinton siphoned off 33 percent of that Republican bloc when he won the state in 1996.

Democratic candidate Vice President Al Gore, who carried the baggage of the contentious raid that returned 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez to Cuba, was able to get only 19 percent of the vote in 2000. Just a few percent more would have carried him to the presidency.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat and a 2004 presidential candidate, has already touched on this incident to appeal to that constituency. Mr. Gore’s 2000 presidential running mate held a news conference in South Florida earlier this week to declare the repatriation of the Cubans an “abandonment of American values.”

Mr. Bendixen, however, said Democrats are unlikely to cut into the Republicans’ hold on the Cuban-American vote in Florida.

The president is strengthened by the fact that his brother, a fluent speaker of Spanish, is extremely popular in the community. And if the president comes out with a new Cuba policy that pleases those constituents, Mr. Bendixen said, it will go a long way toward healing the political wounds.

“It’s going to take more than one mistake to change that voting pattern,” Mr. Bendixen said. “Yes, it’s a problem, but I wouldn’t go so far to say that the president has a problem that is irreversible.”

Mr. Garcia said the bad feelings won’t subside unless the president gives better than the paltry support for Cuban dissidents he has shown so far in his term.

“Republicans have the House, the Senate and the executive [branch],” Mr. Garcia said. “It’s time for this administration to have a Cuba policy. We put our trust in this administration and we are waiting.”

• Tom Carter and Bill Sammon contributed to this report.

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