Bush echoed Miamians' words in Cuba speech
The Miami Herald - Posted October 26
by Alfonso Chard
President Bush's Cuba speech Wednesday had been in the works for months -- possibly since July when Raúl Castro offered an ''olive branch'' to the next U.S. president -- but a recent meeting with Miami exiles may have helped hone Bush's tough message to Cuba's communist government.
''He didn't say that he was going to give a speech,'' Ninoska Pérez Castellón, who was among the select group of 10 who met with Bush in Miami on Oct. 12, said Thursday. ``But he said he wanted to know more about the families of political prisoners, and he heard us talk about their plight.''
The group of 10 exiles, including members of Congress, urged Bush to stand firm on Cuba, publicize the plight of political prisoners and pressure nations to follow the lead of the United States and allies like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in welcoming dissidents at their Havana embassies.
''It was not a surprise to any of us that he stood firm on his convictions because his policies have always been consistent toward Cuba,'' said Pérez Castellón, director of the Cuban Liberty Council and a talk show host at Radio Mambí 710-AM.
Coming just days after Cuba's one-party elections, more than a year after an ailing Fidel Castro ceded power to his brother Raúl and only days before the United Nations takes its annual vote against the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba, the timing of Bush's Cuba speech raised speculation among some Cuba watchers.
Some thought that Bush might announce a policy shift, possibly relaxing travel restrictions. But people familiar with internal discussions said a policy change was never discussed.
Officials familiar with the discussions, who declined to be identified because they did not want to talk publicly about internal deliberations, said the speech was in the works for months.
During the annual celebration of the start of Cuba's revolution on July 26, Raúl Castro said: ``Whatever new administration emerges [after the 2008 election] will have to decide if it will maintain the absurd, illegal and failed policy toward Cuba, or if it will accept the olive branch that we extended.''
Radio Mambí director Armando Pérez Roura, who heads the exile group Cuban Unity, said he told Bush at the Miami meeting that he worried the U.S. government might consider Raúl Castro's ''olive branch'' a serious offer.
''I said to him that for me he was the last hope of Cubans in exile and that we were concerned by the rapprochement [the Cuban regime] was pursuing, without instituting any change,'' said Pérez Roura. ``Raúl Castro said he was tossing an olive branch, but the same acts of repression have continued against anyone dissenting from official government policy.''
To highlight the plight of Cuban dissidents, the audience at the State Department on Wednesday included family members of Cuban political prisoners jailed in a 2003 crackdown.
Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, said Bush's choice of the State Department as the speech venue sent a signal to those in the foreign service who may want to soften Cuba policy.
''Certain elements of the bureaucracy may not be following the president's policies on Cuba,'' said Suchlicki, who was not among those who met with Bush. ``They are concerned about mass migration. They want stability in Cuba and are not pushing the envelope for change.''
Bush settled the issue when he said: 'The operative word in our future dealings with Cuba is not `stability.' The operative word is 'freedom.' ''
Others at the Oct. 12 meeting included Remedios Díaz Oliver of the U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC and the Liberty Council: former state Rep. Gastón Cantens, and Florida's Republican Cuban-American lawmakers, Sen. Mel Martínez and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln and Mario Díaz-Balart.
Díaz Oliver said that at the meeting Bush also expressed concern about ''the situation in Venezuela,'' where President Hugo Chávez has tightened his alliance with Cuba.
GOP LOSING STRENGTH
Bush's speech came as Democrats are buoyed by reports that suggest South Florida's once solidly Republican Cuban-American voting block is no longer monolithically GOP. The Miami Herald reported in August that less than half of Miami-Dade county's Hispanic voters are registered Republicans, down from 59 percent less than a decade ago.
National Democrats last week ran radio ads against Miami's three Cuban-American Republicans, marking the first time the party has spent money in the three districts.