- 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.

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.

The tough political rhetoric, though, is at odds with Hispanics who view U.S. policy toward Cuba with skepticism.

Some, it seems, have even come to terms with the notion that, more than likely, it will be natural causes — not an American president — that brings the curtain down on the Castro brothers.

Many of the gray-haired and balding members of the community here now worry that they might not live to see their dreams become a reality.

Still waiting for change

Standing outside Versailles restaurant in Little Havana, Leon Rozio, a 68-year-old who fled Cuba and served in the 1960s as a reservist in the U.S. Army, said bluntly that he’s seen candidates come and go here, while the Castros stay.

“They all come over here, drink coffee, and say the same [thing]. You have people who hope to see their homeland before they die. Whoever comes over here, they will cry with him, and they will vote for him and hope they are really going to do something about it. But they are not going to do anything about it,” he said, after taking part in a 15-year tradition of holding a candlelight vigil for political prisoners in Cuba.

On Wednesday, Mr. Rozio joined about a dozen others to honor the death of Willman Villar Mendoza, a 31-year-old who they claim died after staging a 50-day hunger strike in prison. The Cuban government, though, said it can prove he was neither a dissident nor on a hunger strike.

Mr. Villar’s death — and the dueling versions of the story of how it came about — is another high-profile reminder of the country’s turbulent history, which is palpable on Calle Ocho, or 8th Street, where political prisoners and members of the anti-Castro guerrilla forces play dominoes and walk among memorials to the Bay of Pigs as well as Jose Marti and Gen. Maximo Gomez, historic figures in the nation’s eventual liberation from Spain.

The vibrant area is also home to Los Pinarenos Fruteria, a mom-and-pop shop with a sidewalk bar that sells bocadito cubano (Cuban sandwich), coco frio (coconut water) and hand-rolled cigars.

Angel Hernandez, 72, bought the store seven years after he parachuted into Cuban in 1961 as part of the CIA’s botched Bay of Pigs invasion. Mr. Hernandez has a folder of documents and pictures, including one that shows him holding a gun, which he said was an M3 he carried while training.

Mr. Hernandez told The Times he spent three days fighting Mr. Castro’s troops before escaping aboard a sailboat with 22 others. Sixteen days later, they landed in New Orleans — but not before 10 people died. Seven of the bodies were tossed overboard and three later buried in the Crescent City.

Asked about the GOP primary, he said that, as a registered Republican, he’s not thrilled with the field and not overly optimistic that any will deliver regime change in Cuba.

“Republicans have done nothing, and Democrats have done nothing,” Mr. Hernandez said.

His 46-year-old son, Peter, a Democrat, said politicians were using people like his father. “It’s very sad that these politics tap into the pain that these Cubans have been carrying around,” he said.

Refugees, not immigrants

At the nearby Cuban Historic Political Prisoner Organization, Saturday’s meeting opened with a recording of the national anthems of the United States and then Cuba, with roughly 60 members singing along in unison.

Luis Gonzales-Infante, the group’s president held up a framed photo of Mr. Villar, saying he is the 13th person to die of a hunger strike in Cuba’s prisons since 1959.

Mr. Infante told The Times after the meeting that he’s also frustrated with what he views as a softening U.S. stance on Cuba. And he’s dispirited by the levels of deficit spending from both parties in Washington — dispirited enough that he now registers as an independent.

Still, philosophically, he said he and the other Cubans in the group are more in tune with the Republican Party — especially when it comes to the GOP’s approach to Cuba, which, he argued, is a more accurate reflection of their status here. Unlike those who chose to come to the United States, they did not — and, in many cases, they want to return home.

“Really, we are not immigrants, we are refugees,” he explained. “You see, many people coming from Latin America think different from us. We have a different reason to be here. They come because they have a very hard situation in their country, but they don’t care about the Cuban case.

“Most of them,” he said, alluding to other Hispanics, “are Democrats.”

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