'Disgusted' Cuban-Americans expose Bush's vulnerabilities


Issue: "John Kerry: On a roll," Feb. 14, 2004

If there's one thing Bush-Cheney '04 would like to script into this calliope of an election season, it'd be this: a win in Florida. But if the president's campaign is serious about avoiding hanging-chad madness, it has so far failed to lock in one element of its core constituency in the Sunshine State: Cuban-Americans.

In 2000, when Mr. Bush won Florida by 537 votes after a protracted recount fight, he did it by winning more than 80 percent of the 400,000 Cuban-Americans who voted-a memorable statistic for GOP strategists.

But in his first term the president has disenchanted prominent Cuban-American activists. "We are very disgusted with the Bush administration," said Jose Basulto, director of Brothers to the Rescue. His group gained prominence when a Cuban MiG fighter shot down two of its airplanes over the Florida Straits in 1996, killing four Floridians. Mr. Basulto has been in court ever since, defending his group and seeking compensation for the attack on his unarmed civilian aircraft.

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Despite some courtroom successes, Mr. Basulto says the victims' families have not been compensated for their losses, and the president has failed to lay the wrong at Fidel Castro's feet. "Bush has hurt our cause by abstaining," he said. Mr. Basulto says he may press his case further with an aerial drop of anti-Castro leaflets over the island sometime around the Feb. 24 anniversary of the shootdown.

Other Cuban-Americans agree that Mr. Bush has been too distracted with menace in the Middle East, neglecting the neighborhood bully just off the Florida coast. Mr. Bush has not revisited a controversial Clinton-era agreement with Cuba that forces the Coast Guard to return Cubans who try to escape to the United States. Nor has the administration overcome Cuban jamming of TV and Radio Marti, despite promises and $25 million in congressional funding.

(Cuban American National Foundation head Joe Garcia endorsed the candidacy of Joe Lieberman, who withdrew from the race after failing to muster a single win.)

At a recent Miami rally and closed-door reception headlined by the president's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, half a dozen locally elected Cuban-Americans were no-shows. "The lack of turnout among Republican-elected officials at the campaign kickoff may highlight a problem among Cuban-American voters that must be addressed," said state Rep. David Rivera of Miami. Mr. Rivera and a dozen other state legislators sent President Bush a letter warning that the president risked losing traditionally enthusiastic support among Cuban-Americans unless he did more to support democracy in their homeland. If the president learned anything in 2000, he knows to value every vote in the Florida state legislature.


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