Politics & Government

Obama electrifies Cuban exile group, long a GOP mainstay

MIAMI — The prominent Cuban-American organization that Republican President Ronald Reagan once counted on to secure victory in Florida was electrified on Friday by an appearance by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

In a lunchtime speech to the Cuban American National Foundation, Obama offered a new Cuba policy approach to an audience accustomed to presidential candidates coming to show solidarity, but not to challenge the longstanding isolation of the island's communist government.

Obama touched on one of his more radical ideas: an often-criticized willingness to meet with Cuban leader Raul Castro.

"I know what the easy thing is to do for American politicians. . . . Every four years, they come down to Miami, they talk tough, they go back to Washington, and nothing changes in Cuba," said Obama, who was greeted by a standing ovation and scattered chanting of his campaign slogan "Yes We Can." "After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, it is time, I believe, to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions."

He repeated previous statements that if elected president, he would immediately lift the limits on Cuban Americans who want to travel to Cuba or send remittances to family on the island.

"There will be careful preparation. We will set a clear agenda"' before any meeting with Castro, Obama said.

Obama's appearance at the Cuban Independence Day luncheon — which drew nearly 900 people to the downtown Miami Intercontinental Hotel — was a bid to woo a Republican-leaning constituency that is one of the keys to presidential victory in the state.

As he introduced Obama, CANF chairman Jorge Mas Santos spoke of the organization's long history of bucking the prevailing ideas on Cuba policy, and acknowledged the inevitable flood of criticism the group will face for hosting Obama.

"We at the Cuban American National Foundation will continue to provide leadership no matter the price," he said.

When Obama arrived, the room burst into a standing ovation as people yelled and snapped pictures. His speech was frequently interrupted by applause.

In the audience: Alina Fernandez, Fidel Castro's daughter living in exile.

"In reality, I came here because I believe he is the only candidate who has spoken sincerely about the intentions that he has toward Cuba," she said.

The GOP launched several pre-emptive attacks, including a memo headlined "Obama: Weak on Cuba," and an Internet video highlighting what it said was a flip-flop on the embargo. Obama advocated lifting sanctions when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, but now says the embargo should stay in place.

Others in the Cuban-American community who were not at the CANF event were critical of his positions.

Ninoska P‚rez-Castellon, a director and spokeswoman for the Cuban Liberty Council, said that Obama's positions show his "ignorance on the Cuban issue."

"I think that Senator Obama has shown that he can adapt to any audience, because before today he advocated for the lifting of the embargo," she said.

For decades, presidents and candidates have come to pay their respects to the foundation. Reagan made history when he addressed CANF at its Cuban Independence Day luncheon in 1983, forming a mutually rewarding political connection between the GOP and the exile community. The organization has since moved more to the center of the political spectrum.

Democrats have come too, allowing the group to play both sides of the aisle to increase its clout. Bill Clinton came as a candidate. So did vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman.

Obama's speech offered a sharp contrast to the remarks delivered just four days ago by McCain in Miami. McCain's stay-the-course message was warmly received, but CANF president Pepe Hernandez said he was disappointed.

"We love Senator McCain and we have been friends with him for a very long period of time, but we think at this juncture of history of the Cuban process we need to try new approaches and new methods," he said. "There was nothing in his speech that we have not heard before."

Obama criticized the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Friday, saying McCain had joined the "parade of politicians who make the same empty promises year after year, decade after decade."

McCain's campaign fired back. "By changing his position in front of Cuban-Americans to support the embargo that he used to oppose, Barack Obama is engaging in the same political expediency that he railed against in his speech,&quit; McCain spokesman Tucker Bound said in a written statement.

Trying to deflect criticism that his administration's hard-line position separates families, President Bush announced earlier this week that Cuban-Americans would be able to send cell phones to their families in Cuba.

Hernandez said that is already common practice and called Bush's announcement "ridiculous.&quit;

The foundation favors relaxing the administration's rules that limit Cuban-Americans to visiting family on the island only once every three years.

Obama made it clear in his remarks that he expected to deepen his relationship with the Cuban-American community as the presidential campaign unfolds in the coming months.

"I don't presume to know everything that I need to know about Cuba, and I am here not just to talk but to listen," Obama said.

Obama also spoke about other Latin American countries, assailing the growing influence of Venezuelan leftist President Hugo Chavez's "checkbook diplomacy" as a result of what he called the Bush Administration's "negligent" Latin America policy.

He also spoke of the inequality, poverty and violence that marks the lives of many in countries such as Haiti, Mexico, and Colombia, promising to combat such ills through an increase in aid to the region and through trade deals that spread "the benefits of globalization, instead of steering them to special interests while we short-change workers at home and abroad."

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