- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 29, 2012

MIAMI — Mitt Romney says if he’s elected, he expects Fidel Castro will be “taken off this planet.” Newt Gingrich vows he “won’t tolerate another four years of a Cuban dictatorship” and Rick Santorum argues the 50-year-embargo shouldn’t be lifted until the “Castros are dead.”

The tough talk on Castro comes fast and furious here in Florida, where Cuban-Americans — 32 percent of all Hispanic voters in the state and a sizable chunk of the Republican electorate — hope the next American president will do something his predecessors couldn’t or wouldn’t: Topple Castro and return democracy to a nation they argue was stolen when Fulgencio Batista, the U.S.-backed dictator, was overthrown in 1959.

“It is an extremely, extremely important, heartfelt, issue that Cuba becomes free again,” Jack Delaster said after Wednesday’s Romney rally at Freedom Tower in downtown Miami, where thousands of Cuban exiles were treated and processed when they first came to the United States. The 80-year-old told The Washington Times he hasn’t been back to Cuba since he left in 1960 and, like others hurt by the Castro revolution, “you have to show me what you are going to do for Cuba” to earn his vote.

Courting the Cuba vote

In the run-up to the state’s pivotal primary on Tuesday, the Republican candidates — with the exception of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas — have been busy feeding red meat to the Jack Delasters of the state.

Supporters of Cuban political prisoners gather to sing and pray outside Cafe Versailles along Calle Ocho in Miami on Wednesday for their weekly candlelight vigil to remember current and past political prisoners. (Rod Lamkey Jr./The Washington Times)
Supporters of Cuban political prisoners gather to sing and pray outside Cafe ... more >

They’ve sipped Cuban coffee, embraced the notion of “Cuba Libre” — “Free Cuba” — and launched blistering attacks against President Obama’s decisions to ease restrictions on travel and sending money to Cuba.

Mr. Obama began loosening restrictions on the communist nation 90 miles off Florida’s coast in 2009, making it easier for exiles to send money to relatives and making it possible for more exiles and Americans to legally travel to the island. Since then, he has increased limits on investments and allowed all U.S. international airports to accept flights to and from Cuba.

Geoff Thale, of the Washington office on Latin America, says the Obama administration likely saw the shifting opinions toward the long-standing American policy of embargoing Cuba — a position still supported by older exiles who had their property taken during the revolution, but less popular with newer Cuban immigrants.

Mr. Thale pointed to a 2011 Florida International University poll that showed 44 percent of all of Miami-Dade County Cuban-Americans oppose continuing the sanctions — and even higher levels of dissatisfaction with the policy among the community’s younger voters.

“Many Cuban-Americans are looking for other avenues for change in Cuba itself,” Mr. Thale said. “Many are focused, more than anything else, on helping their own relatives on the island, and think that embargo-related restrictions hurt their relatives. And some are just less focused on the issue.”

GOP’s hard line on Cuba

But the Republican presidential candidates warn that Mr. Obama doesn’t understand that he’s putting money directly into the pockets of the communist government, which charges fees on the remittances. That, they argue, is bolstering the Castro government, which has been run by the 84-year-old Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul, 80, since 2006.

“If I’m fortunate to become the next president of the United States, it is my expectation that Fidel Castro will finally be taken off this planet,” Mr. Romney told the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC last week. “I doubt he’ll take any time in the sky. He’ll find a nether region to be more to his comfort.”

Mr. Gingrich, meanwhile, said “the policy of the United States should be aggressively to overthrow the regime” and predicted before a debate audience last week in Tampa that when Fidel Castro dies he will not “meet his maker.”

“I think he’s going to go to the other place,” he said, sparking some laughter from the crowd.

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