- 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.

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