By Janine Zacharia | Bloomberg News
7:40 AM EDT, April 29, 2008
As Joe Garcia digs into tamal en cazuela, a pork-cornmeal stew, at a
restaurant in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, he rails against the
almost five- decade U.S. trade embargo on Cuba and the politicians who
``We have a policy that is stuck in time and place, and we're not
achieving any of our goals,'' says the 44-year-old Cuban-American
Democrat who is trying to unseat Republican Representative Mario
Diaz-Balart, 46, a staunch embargo supporter.
While Fidel Castro and his brother Raul age in Havana, so do many
stalwarts in Miami's Cuban community who have pressed successive U.S.
administrations to starve Castro's regime. Now, as Raul, Cuba's new
president, allows people to own cell phones and signals he may relax a
ban on foreign travel, some younger Cuban-Americans are pushing to ease
America's policy toward the island nation.
Garcia is banking that enough people share his frustration to help him
beat the incumbent. So does Raul Martinez, 59, also a Cuban-American
Democrat, who is challenging Mario's brother, Lincoln, 53, a U.S.
representative for another Miami district. The Diaz-Balarts are from a
well-known anti-Castro family.
Political observers are watching the contests, the first since Fidel,
81, yielded power to Raul, 76, for evidence of a change in political
Older Cubans who came to the U.S. in the early 1960s after the Castro
revolution are mostly committed to a hard-line policy. Meanwhile, the
number of younger Cuban-Americans who vote more on economic issues is
That may signal a shift away from a reliable Republican bloc in Florida,
where, in the hotly contested 2000 election, overwhelming support for
George W. Bush by the Cuban community helped him win the state and the
In a focus group of 18-to-40-year-old Cuban-Americans before Florida's
January primary, no one raised Cuba when asked their top 10 issues of
importance, says Sergio Bendixen, president of Bendixen & Associates,
the public-opinion research and consulting firm that conducted the session.
Asked if they care about the Cuba issue, one respondent replied, ``Only
for the sake of my grandmother.''
Even some of the older imigres now are calling for new tactics.
``Raul doesn't have the same ability to maintain control over the system
as Fidel Castro had,'' says Francisco Hernandez, the 71-year-old head of
the Cuban American National Foundation, an advocacy group in Miami.
``Things are going to change. We should somehow help those changes to
Ending economic isolation is already on the agenda of Carlos Saladrigas,
a 59-year-old Cuban-American businessman who co-chairs the Cuba Study
Group. The Washington-based organization aims to make small loans to
entrepreneurs in Cuba.
``We're the ideal and natural market for Cuban goods,'' he says.
``There's nothing more logical than that.''
Vicki Huddleston, the former chief American diplomat in Havana, says the
U.S. could have ``considerably more influence inside Cuba if we could
stimulate change there.'' One way, she says, is to permit American
Internet companies to operate on the island.
In 2000 U.S. lawmakers eased the trade embargo and allowed the export of
agricultural and medical goods to Cuba. Shipments rose to $447 million
last year, from $341 million in 2006, according to U.S. trade data.
Garcia says he doesn't advocate completely abandoning the embargo
because too many people still support it. Instead he emphasizes domestic
concerns and wants to lift restrictions Bush imposed in 2004 on travel
to Cuba and sending money there.
Liudmila Ruiz, a 33-year-old receptionist at a local beauty salon, is
the kind of voter Garcia seeks.
She was studying medicine in Cuba when the U.S. visa lottery enabled her
to immigrate to Florida in 2000. She laments she can't afford to buy a
house and doesn't have health insurance.
``You care about Cuba,'' she says. ``But you care about stuff here more.''
When Fidel handed over power to Raul, Bush said he wouldn't talk to a
``tyrant.'' The State Department urged the Cuban government ``to begin a
process of peaceful, democratic change'' and then later dismissed Raul's
efforts to loosen restrictions. ``The situation has not changed from
today to 10 years ago, to 20 years ago,'' spokesman Sean McCormack said
Many older Cuban-Americans -- and even some younger advocates who echo
their grandparents' views -- hail such fortitude. Others see it as a
sign that Bush, worried a change might provoke a refugee crisis, prefers
the status quo.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has said it's time for a
shift in policy and is open to talking with Raul Castro. His rival,
Hillary Clinton, and Republican presidential nominee John McCain have
both said they won't meet with him.
Maritza Aldir, 23, who lives in Miami Beach and works as a sales
coordinator at a television station, says the younger generation is
``tired'' of the conflict the embargo has caused in the Cuban-American
She's active with Raices de Esperanza, or ``Roots of Hope,'' a group of
15-to-35-year-olds that doesn't take a stand on U.S.-Cuba policy while
trying to find ways to communicate with and support young people there.
``My friends here in Miami, what we really want is to just engage with
the people of Cuba and just learn from each other,'' she says.