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Archive for Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Nothing new in Bush’s Cuba policy

November 19, 2003

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Mel Martinez floats on a cloud of political optimism. On the same day that Florida Republicans were abuzz about the Housing and Urban Development secretary's likely entry into the U.S. Senate race, Congress handed the Cuban-American a gift wrapped in the contradictions of the 40-year-old U.S. ban on travel to the communist island.

Imagine: Bush gets re-elected, a bipartisan effort in Congress tries once again to lift the travel ban or get rid of the trade embargo, and there to sweat a filibuster would be freshman Sen. Martinez. "That would be one wild 24/7," Martinez joked Friday when I raised the scenario.

Fidel can't be a happy septuagenarian dictator right now.

Not with the possibility that Martinez would be senator. Not when the European Union already has refused to broaden trade since Castro's March crackdown on dissidents. Not when key trade partners, such as Spain and Italy, have been inviting Cuban dissidents to attend swank affairs at their embassies in Havana.

Cuba's crackdown taught Europe a lesson. "Some people thought you could advance change (by trading with the regime)," Martinez said. "But the people within the Cuban government who had a softer line have been silenced, and it's back to the hard line/hard line all the way."

When American diplomats in Havana invited dissidents to functions, the regime tried to cast such exchanges as an imperialist plot to aid "terrorists." The crackdown on the 75 dissidents, journalists and librarians -- plus the quickie death-penalty trials and executions of three young black Cubans who hijacked a Havana ferry this spring -- makes a softer line on Cuba a tough sell, though.

(Memo to those who defend U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's riding roughshod over the U.S. Constitution to fight terrorism: Move to Cuba, and maybe you'll understand my disdain for the Patriot Act.)

But what if Castro were to free all dissidents? It's not the first time he has cut deals to court international support.

Not enough, Martinez said.

Ah, the old "Cuba hard line meets U.S. hard line" conundrum that has kept Cubans in misery for 44 years.

So what's really new about Bush's "new" Cuba policy, besides slapping a Midwestern church lady with stiff fines for traveling to the island without U.S. approval?

Bush recently tapped Martinez and Secretary of State Colin Powell to come up with ways to "hasten the transition to democracy in Cuba by nonviolent means." Bush acted out of clear political fear. South Florida's Cuban-American politicians and exile groups were threatening to sit out the 2004 election unless Bush toughened Cuba policy.

The task force should meet for the first time in December and might have meetings next year in Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago to hear from exiles, business leaders, human-rights advocates and even those who might disagree with current U.S. policy, Martinez said.

Still, I'm convinced the biological solution -- Castro's dying of old age -- is the only change that will matter.

The buzz that Bush's political plotter, Karl Rove, wants Martinez to run for the Senate to help the president capture Florida with a one-two punch -- securing South Florida's Cuban exiles and Martinez's Central Florida base -- creates all sorts of GOP intrigues.

Many Cuban-American legislators, looking to build their own political fortunes, already have pledged support to either House Speaker Johnnie Byrd or Central Florida Sen. Daniel Webster. Neither has statewide pizzazz. Two South Florida heavy-hitters -- U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and his brother, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart -- are sticking with the GOP's 2000 failed Senate candidate, former Rep. Bill McCollum. This is where jealousy usurps sound political sense. The bombastic Lincoln, in particular, hasn't been too keen on Bush looking to the more soft-spoken Martinez for advice on Cuba policy.

Look for Martinez to decide by Dec. 1, though he maintains it probably won't be until January. It's a testament of his loyalty to the president that he's even considering this wild ride through Florida's political ground zero.




Myriam Marquez is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail is mmarquez@orlandosentinel.com

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