Bush stands firm on Cuba during Miami visit
Despite his sinking popularity among Cuban Americans, President Bush
continued to hold the line on Cuba travel restrictions during a visit to
BY PATRICIA MAZZEI
President Bush came to Miami on Friday to meet with Cuban-American
leaders and raise money for GOP congressional candidates across the country.
Noticeably absent: Miami's three Cuban-American congressional members,
all Republicans waging spirited reelection races with Democratic
challengers who are trying to tie the incumbents to the Bush administration.
Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
all cited prior commitments. For the Diaz-Balarts, that included a Miami
fundraiser hosted by House Republican John Boehner of Ohio.
Bush, in what could be his last visit to Miami as president, held the
line on the Cuban embargo and remittances to the island while visiting
with the Cuban-American leaders.
Democrats have suggested that Bush's 2004 decision to further restrict
travel and remittances to Cuba angered once-diehard Republican
Cuban-American voters enough to put the three congressional seats into play.
Polls show former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez and former Miami-Dade
Democratic Party Chairman Joe Garcia within striking distance of the
Diaz-Balart brothers, despite the Republicans' solid lead among
Cuban-American voters in their districts.
Ros-Lehtinen is still favored in her race, although she is facing her
first serious challenge -- from Pinecrest businesswoman Annette Taddeo
-- since taking office 19 years ago.
Several groups -- and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama --
have asked the administration to at least temporarily lift the Cuba
travel and remittances ban in the wake of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike,
which left parts of the island under rubble.
But Bush, surrounded by 12 Cuban-American activists at Havana Harry's
restaurant in Coral Gables, held firm and said the Cuban government's
rejection of a U.S. offer of hurricane aid ``should tell the people of
Cuba and the people around the world that the Castro people are only
interested in themselves and their power.
''Our government has been very clear about our strategy, and that is . .
. that we will change the embargo strategy only when the government of
Cuba lets the people of Cuba express themselves freely,'' said Bush, who
did not take questions from reporters.
Bush met with the Cuban Americans for an hour, part of a whirlwind visit
that included a fundraiser at the Cocoplum home of developer Sergio Pino
-- a one-time member of the elite ''Rangers'' club of top fundraisers
The fundraiser was expected to bring in $500,000 with 90 people in
attendance, a GOP official said. The money will benefit congressional
races around the country.
Bush, who has courted the influential Cuban-American voting bloc since
he first ran for the presidency in 2000, struck a nostalgic tone as he
met with the group. Several exiles have said they had hoped to celebrate
a free Cuba with Bush.
''I have been privileged to know many around this table for nearly eight
years as I've been president,'' he said, noting that he got to know them
when he was campaigning. ``My little brother [former Florida Gov. Jeb
Bush] introduced me to these Cuban Americans with whom I work with one
goal in mind, and that is the freedom of Cuba.''
The president's South Florida swoop snarled Miami traffic Friday
afternoon, with most of LeJeune Road and part of Red Road blocked south
of Miami International Airport to make way for the motorcade.
Drivers got out of their cars and walked to see Bush pass by, many of
them waving American flags and snapping photos on their cellphones. A
few gave the president a thumbs-down and held ''Obama '08'' signs --
including a large poster that read ``Republicanos por Obama.''
Democrats believe they have a shot at peeling off Cuban-American voters
from the once-reliable Republican voting bloc. Also courting those
voters in Miami on Friday was Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New
Jersey, a child of Cuban exiles. Menendez said he'd been campaigning in
Miami since Thursday night, talking to Hispanics on behalf of Obama --
who is running ahead with the Hispanic vote in all swing states but Florida.
''The Cuban Americans, as I experienced today, have a broad view,''
Menendez said in an interview. ``They're not just rigidly focused on
Cuba policy, although that's important.''
Democratic Rep. Yvette Clarke of New York, the daughter of Jamaican
immigrants, will also be campaigning on behalf of Obama in Broward and
Miami-Dade counties this weekend, reaching out to Caribbean communities.
Miami Herald staff writer Lesley Clark contributed to this report.