Hillary's Infidelity

Obama's strategy makes her spurn Bill's Cuban advances and embrace Bush and the GOP's anti-Castro right.

There's a missing piece in the apple pie that Hillary Clinton has been serving up to Americans on the campaign trail. "Americans from all walks of life across our country may be invisible to this president," she says. "But they won't be invisible to me."

They won't be, that is, unless they are Americans who just want to visit their moms in Cuba once a year.

That missing piece is why Barack Obama's recent Cuba-policy offering looked so nice: He called for an end to the Bush administration's restrictions on Cuban-Americans who want to visit or send money to relatives in Cuba. Obama's proposal was as layered and complex—and as sweet—as the cake called tres leches (three milks: whole, condensed, and evaporated). It smacked of family values, and it was in keeping with the thrust toward dialogue, trade, and other human contact with Cuba that Bill Clinton had pursued as president.

In effect, Obama has pushed Hillary into the Bush camp on Cuba policy. She has even parroted the neocon hard line against the lefties who have taken over several Latin American governments. Obama thus distinguished himself from her on an important geopolitical issue besides the Iraq War (and her initial support for it). He may also have opened a serious fissure in the GOP's last Hispanic stronghold—Cuban-Americans—from which at least a trickle of new Democratic votes could flow.

This Clinton-Obama split has exposed a rift among national Democratic leaders over how to capitalize on weakening Cuban support for Republicans in the battleground state of Florida as part of an effort to solidify Democratic support among the growing number of Hispanic voters nationwide.

Moreover, Obama dished out a sweet antidote to the bitter brew that George W. Bush had served up in the 2004 campaign. To the pleasure of hardcore Republican exiles, Bush reduced Cuban-Americans' freedom to travel to Cuba from once per year to once every three years; they could stay only 14 days and spend only $50 per day; and they needed the Treasury Department's permission. Bush also limited their remittances to relatives to $300 every three months. His Commerce Department created a new list of items—including such subversive things as hand soap, toothpaste, and clothes—that all Americans are forbidden from sending to Cuba. (In general, U.S. law prohibits all other U.S. citizens from traveling to Cuba at all.)

Bush's hard line produced a classic case of schadenfreude for the Cuban Liberty Council and other pro-Republican groups dedicated to demonizing Fidel Castro and upholding the sanctity of the 46-year-old U.S. embargo of Cuba. Most of their families had left the island in the '60s and '70s. They celebrated Bush's new restrictions, despite the pain they caused for more recent Cuban émigrés who maintain close ties with relatives in Cuba. At a Cuban Liberty Council gala that election year, assistant secretary of state Roger Noriega proclaimed that the measures would "choke off resources" to the Castro regime.

Some political strategists and national Hispanic leaders think that Hillary's decision to attempt to appease Cuban-Americans could backfire. After all, a majority of Cuban-Americans now favor relaxed restrictions on visiting Cuba, according to a survey by veteran pollster Sergio Bendixen released in March. Bendixen is advising the Clinton campaign, but Hillary's camp appears to be listening more to her key Hispanic adviser, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey—a rare Cuban-American Democrat, but one who shares the pro-Republican exiles' hard line.

Many exiles revile Bendixen, a Peruvian-American and longtime embargo critic, because his polling data have revealed that a majority of Cuban-Americans paradoxically support the embargo and admit it has failed miserably. But Bendixen is punting for Hillary's team. Immediately after the first-ever presidential debate on a national Spanish-language network in the United States—the historic September 9 forum of Democratic candidates was beamed nationwide by Univision—Bendixen told a Palm Beach Post reporter, "It's a wise move to avoid easy answers to the Cuba issue in a forum like this. Cubans here in Miami are tired of candidates coming here on the campaign trail and making all sorts of promises on Cuba, and then when they get in office they do nothing."

If they're tired now, they'll be extremely exhausted a year from now. "We're going to be in the Cuban community a lot. I hope you don't get tired of me," GOP front-runner Rudy Giuliani told a small crowd during a June visit to a Cuban restaurant in Hialeah, which borders Miami. "Castro is a murderer," Giuliani said. "I know it, I will never forget it. So is his brother. I know it, I will never forget it." Giuliani returned to Hialeah a month later for more of the same.

Last month, Fred Thompson, who according to polls is catching up to Giuliani in Florida and elsewhere, visited a Cuban restaurant in Little Havana just nine days after announcing his run and also toed the hard line. "Fidel Castro is a dictator, he's the head of a, of a state, uh, state-sponsored terrorism, and he needs to be dealt with as such," Thompson droned, bending forward to emphasize key words. "And our policies must reflect that in every respect. We must keep the sanctions on, we must keep the embargo on. We must treat him for what he is."


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