MIAMI Florida's Cuban-Americans have voted
Republican for years. But the party could lose its grip on the
heartland of exile opposition to Fidel Castro on Tuesday,
signaling possible change in U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Polls show Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama
slightly ahead or running even with his Republican rival John
McCain in the state that decided the 2000 election for
President George W. Bush after a disputed recount.
At the local level, in a shift almost unthinkable until
recently, three Miami-based Cuban-American Republicans who
serve in the U.S. House of Representatives and have long run
almost unopposed are locked in tight races with Democrats.
The incumbents are all staunch supporters of the
46-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and restrictions on
family travel and remittances that Bush imposed to toughen it
Like Obama, their Democratic challengers want to end
restrictions imposed by Bush, and bank on the conviction that
Miami's hard-line anti-communism has started to fade.
The Democrats have been buoyed by a rising tide of voter
registration numbers for their party and internal polls putting
them in a dead heat in at least two of the three adjoining
south Florida congressional districts.
Such polls cannot be independently verified, but the
incumbents, running scared, have unleashed what analysts call
one of the nastiest campaigns in the unsavory history of south
"These people are dinosaurs," said Raul Martinez, who is
challenging eight-term incumbent Lincoln Diaz-Balart in
Florida's 21st Congressional District.
"They never had any opposition. That's why they kept
winning," Martinez told Reuters.
"You're going to see an immediate change on family travel.
Those restrictions will be lifted," he added, saying an easing
of Cuba policy could gain momentum quickly if it was backed by
a Cuban-American lawmaker representing south Florida.
Anti-Castro sentiment still runs high among Miami's 650,000
Cuban exiles, who account for just over a quarter of the total
population of the greater Miami area.
Older Cuban-Americans like Martinez, a veteran former mayor
of a working-class enclave on Miami's outskirts, still remember
when local Cubans favoring closer ties with their homeland
risked being firebombed or targeted in a drive-by shooting.
"There were more bombings in Miami than in Belfast," said
Violent displays of exile passion are distant memories,
however. And change is evident among younger Cuban-Americans
more preoccupied with the U.S. housing debacle and surging
unemployment than with the situation in Cuba.
"There's one issue in this election, it's the economy,"
said Joe Garcia, a local political veteran running close behind
three-term incumbent Mario Diaz-Balart, Lincoln's younger
brother, in another congressional district.
But Cuba is still an issue, according to Mario Diaz-Balart,
who maintains that Garcia and other Democrats support
"unilaterally getting rid of important parts of sanctions and
unilaterally asking nothing in return."
Most Cuban-Americans remain committed to a tough stance
against Cuba, Diaz-Balart said, adding that Cuba's communist
government had a longstanding goal of seeing hardcore Castro
foes voted out of office.
"Obviously the regime's hope is that they would have
somebody representing south Florida that's pushing to get rid
of sanctions and clearly that's something that my opponent
would be doing if he was there," he said in an interview.
The Diaz-Balarts, Fidel Castro's nephews by marriage, both
say talk of change among Cuban-Americans has been overblown.
But nowhere is it more evident than in the Miami-based Cuban
American National Foundation, which has morphed from a
staunchly Republican anti-communist pressure group under its
former leader Jorge Mas Canosa, who died in 1997, into a
non-partisan organization that gave Obama a warm reception on a
visit to Miami in May.
Mas Canosa's son, Jorge Mas Santos, now heads the group. He
endorsed Obama in an opinion column in The Washington Post.
"U.S. policy toward Cuba is at best static and at worst
counterproductive, a source of increasing frustration to many
Cuban-Americans," said Santos, who wants to see the next
president lift Bush's restrictions on family travel and cash
remittances and open more channels of contact with Cuba's civil
Cuba-born Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a 10-term incumbent from
South Florida's 18th district, seems to have the safest
congressional seat among those who have made her homeland a
staple of Miami politics.
But Democrat and Colombian-American businesswoman Annette
Taddeo is giving the most senior Republican woman in the U.S.
House the biggest fight of a career in which she has rarely
faced more than token opposition.
(Editing by Anthony Boadle)