by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- President George W Bush has lost some support in Florida's Cuban-American community which, if the 2000 elections are a guide, could play a decisive role in November's voting, according to a poll released here Friday.
The survey of 812 Cuban-Americans in several key south Florida counties shows Bush still claiming the backing of two-thirds of the community. While unusually strong for any ethnic voting bloc, that support is down from the nearly 82 percent of the Cuban-American vote he received in 2000.
The survey, commissioned by the William C Velasquez Institute and conducted by MirRam Global, and carried out June 29-July 7, suggests Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry could make serious inroads into the community, particularly by directing his appeal to Cuban-Americans who arrived in the United States after 1980 and those who were born in the country.
Those two groups are the most disaffected with Bush, according to MirRam Director Luis Miranda, who noted to journalists however that, so far, "that discontent does not translate into support for the Democratic candidate."
The survey found that only 16 percent of adult Cuban-Americans currently consider themselves likely to vote for the Democratic candidate.
A major reason for the erosion in support for Bush, especially among Cuban-Americans who arrived after 1980, is the unpopularity of recent regulations that have cut back the freedom of Cuban-Americans to visit their homeland and to send money and other supplies to their relatives there, the survey found.
Those regulations, which were initially announced in May but took formal effect in late June, have provoked a major controversy within the Cuban-American community, pitting older, more established right-wing members against new arrivals, whose links to the island remain much stronger.
"These new, harsh policies only divide Cuban families and senselessly punish those in need of humanitarian aid," said Mavis Anderson, senior associate of the Latin American Working Group (LAWG), a Washington-based coalition of church and human rights groups that oppose the 44-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the island nation. "The poll results show that the tired Cuba policy is not fully supported by the Cuban-American community," she added at the poll's release.
Nearly two-thirds of the survey's respondents who arrived in the United States after 1980 and 59 percent of younger U.S.-born Cuban-Americans, for example, expressed "strong disapproval" of one new regulation that limits travel to Cuba to only once every three years, instead of the current once a year. By contrast, only 38 percent of Cuban-Americans who arrived prior to 1980 said they disagreed with the policy.
"The restrictions are dividing the Cuban-American community politically, and contributing to an erosion in support for the president," said Geoff Thale, a Cuba specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
Release of the poll results followed by just one day a sharp rebuff by the Republican-led House of Representatives to Bush's Cuba policy, particularly his latest measures to make it harder for Cuban-Americans and other citizens to send gifts and other items to the island.
A total of 46 lawmakers from Bush's Republican party crossed the aisle to join Democrats in refusing to appropriate money for the enforcement of regulations that limit the amount of baggage Cuban-Americans can carry on planes to Cuba and that ban certain items, such as toiletries and clothing, which could be sent to Cubans as gifts.
The desertion of a substantial number of farm-state and moderate Republicans, who teamed up with Democrats several years ago to exempt agricultural exports from the trade embargo and are eager to broaden that exemption, recalled votes late last year in which bipartisan majorities of both the House and the Senate voted to lift restrictions on travel to Cuba. Those efforts, however, eventually fell victim to a threat by Bush to veto the moves.
In addition to the limitations on frequency of family visits, the new regulations also require that Cuban-Americans define "family" much more narrowly than in the past, and make it more difficult for other U.S. nationals to travel to the island for educational or cultural reasons. They also sharply reduce the amount of money that can be spent by Cuban-Americans in Cuba, and prohibit sending remittances to anyone in the Caribbean nation except close family members.
The measures were imposed largely as a result of political pressure exerted by more hard-line, anti-Castro elements in the Cuban-American community, who expressed bitter disappointment that Bush had not been more aggressive in his policies toward the island in the first three years of his tenure.
They reacted particularly strongly in the wake of a crackdown last year by President Fidel Castro against dissidents that resulted in two executions of would-be ship hijackkers and lengthy prison sentences for 75 people who had ties to an American diplomat. The Cuban-American hard-liners were led by two South Florida congressmen, Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
But even as the new rules were announced in May, a number of more moderate groups, such as the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), suggested the administration was going too far and would pay a political price for heeding the extremists. Several groups also formed the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights, which is now fighting the new regulations.
"Surveys consistently show that the vast majority of Cuban-Americans support family travel," said Alvaro Fernandez, president of the new commission. "These regulations pander to a minority of Cuban-Americans and are nothing more than election-year politics."
If so, they could backfire in a big way, according to the survey's findings.
Florida, which went to Bush by a contested 500-vote margin in 2000, ended up deciding the entire presidential election and is currently considered a "battleground state" -- that is, one of about 10 states where the Bush-Kerry race is considered too close to call. Any substantial shift in votes by an important community could decide the outcome in November.
While Cuban-American voters often split their votes between the two major parties in local or state elections, they tend to vote overwhelmingly Republican in presidential races, by margins that have fluctuated between 75 and 85 percent, making them perhaps the most solidly Republican ethnic bloc in the country.
According to the survey, many Cuban-Americans, particularly those who were born in the United States, who arrived in the country after 1980, or who came for economic reasons, expressed unhappiness with Bush for the same reasons as other citizens -- mainly the economy and Iraq.
But the survey shows unusual discontent with the recent regulations, which offers a significant opening to Kerry, according to Miranda, particularly because only about two-thirds of those questioned said they understood the implications of the new rules.
July 13, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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