- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2003

It is not an overstatement to argue that George W. Bush is president today largely because of Cuban Americans. After Clinton Attorney General Janet Reno ordered an armed raid to take 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez away from his family and ship him off to communist Cuba, outraged Cuban Americans turned out in force to vote against Democratic candidate Al Gore in retribution for the administration’s mistreatment of one of their own. More than 80 percent of Florida’s 400,000 Cuban-American votes were delivered for Mr. Bush in 2000. This put him over the top in that state’s close election, and thus, provided the electoral votes to defeat Mr. Gore. Florida’s Cuban Americans are now shocked that the Bush administration is sending Cuban political refugees back to Fidel Castro’s prisons. And so are we.

As the paper went to press last night, 19 Cubans were awaiting their fate aboard a U.S. Coast Guard ship. They had been picked up in a rag-tag boat after escaping Cuba for Florida on Monday. Some are relatives of a man executed for trying to escape Cuba in April. As members of pro-democracy opposition groups, the 19 face time in Mr. Castro’s prisons if they are sent back. This should offer enough justification for asylum. But if principle alone does not sway the administration, politics should. Miami’s Cuban community already is fuming that 12 asylum seekers were shipped back to Cuba last week after being picked up about halfway to Florida. U.S. law grants asylum only if refugees reach American soil. What makes the case particularly outrageous is that U.S. bureaucrats negotiated with Cuban communist officials to sentence the freedom seekers to 10-year prison terms. It is not clear how high up the administration ladder this decision was made, but somebody’s head should roll.

U.S. officials negotiating prison sentences with Havana was scandalous enough that President Bush’s own brother — Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — took the shocking step of publicly criticizing the administration. In an interview with the Miami Herald two days ago, Gov. Bush said, “That is an oppressive regime, and given the environment in Cuba, it’s just not right. There’s an expectation that I’m going to be in lock step with the administration, but from time to time I have to disagree, and this is one of them.” Florida’s three Cuban-American congressmen — Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart — wrote the administration imploring consideration of the most recent asylum claims. With another election next year, the Bush White House should welcome the freedom-seekers — for its own future as well as the Cubans’.

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