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Voter surveys show Clinton barely ahead of Giuliani and Thompson in Florida. She may lead Giuliani in New York by 10 to 15 percentage points, but the margin shrinks to a few in New Jersey, where 100,000 Cuban-American votes could make all the difference.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Cuban-Americans who want a little unification with family in Cuba remain invisible to the Clinton campaign.
Even Bill Clinton is at odds with Hillary on this issue, though he won't criticize her directly. A few days before the Univision forum, he showed up in Miami to sign copies of his latest title, Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World. When my turn came, after an hour-long wait in a line that meandered two city blocks, two rounds of frisking, and a 20-minute wind through the bookstore, I asked the former president what he thought of Obama's idea to lift travel restrictions to Cuba. The ex-president immediately launched into an upbeat soliloquy that lasted a minute or two.
"I liked the way it was before," he told me, and talked of his efforts during his first term to open up U.S. agricultural sales, increase cultural exchanges, and foment dialogue among expatriates and the Cuban government. "And then they murdered those Brothers to the Rescue pilots," he said, referring to the February 1996 shoot-down of anti-Castro activists by Cuban fighter planes that prompted a hardening of the U.S. embargo on Cuba. As he continued to sign books, Clinton waxed eloquent about the merits of his pre-1996 policy of promoting democracy via people-to-people contact between Cuban-Americans and ordinary citizens on the island.
Then he returned to my initial question about what he thinks of Obama's Cuban initiative. "So I think it's a good idea," he concluded with a smile.
Obama first floated the proposal in an op-ed piece in The Miami Herald in mid-August, five days ahead of a campaign stop in Miami's Little Havana section. He deplored the Castro government for jailing dissidents and for "clinging to a discredited ideology and authoritarian control." He would retain much of the trade embargo and ease it only if a post-Castro government began opening Cuba to democratic change. But he could not abide the travel restrictions. "Cuban-American connections to family in Cuba are not only a basic right in humanitarian terms, but also our best tool for helping to foster the beginnings of grass-roots democracy on the island," he wrote.
In response, Hillary's camp issued a statement: "Until it is clear what type of policies might come with a new government, we cannot talk about changes in the U.S. policies toward Cuba." The press release expressed support for the Bush administration's policy toward the island.
Influential Clinton administration veterans who now work on the Obama campaign are trying to make as much hay as they can. Their argument: How could Hillary not see the tens of thousands of Americans who want the freedom to visit Cuba and send money to relatives there?
"Someone is probably thinking what the impact is going to be on the Cuban-American vote," Federico Peña said during a recent visit to Miami. Bill Clinton's former secretary of transportation and then of energy, Peña is now co-chairman of the Obama campaign.
"It's really odd, because what Senator Obama is recommending is pretty much what Bill Clinton had as policy. It seems odd that it was good policy then and it's not good policy now," says Frank Sanchez, a Tampa-based strategist who is also now working for the Obama campaign, though he was a Latin-American policy adviser and assistant secretary of transportation in the Clinton administration. "I think [Hillary] tried to make a distinction, to again portray Barack as having not thought things through, and I think she got too clever here. I think she's the one that didn't think things through this time. How can you not say that it is literally inhumaneand totally contrary to quote-unquote family valuesto deny a Cuban-American the right to go see her grandmother, who may not live another three years? If what we're trying to do is empower the Cuban people as opposed to the government, what better way to do that than to make them less dependent on the government through remittals that their family can give? Which is part of what the Clinton administration was trying to do."
Florida's Cuban-American voters number about 600,000 (6 percent of the state's electorate) and vote overwhelmingly Republican. About 75 percent of them, or 450,000, voted for Bush in 2004; his margin of victory over John Kerry in the state was 381,000 votes.
Whether or not Obama's Cuban strategy makes a dent there, it may help him with other Hispanic voters. In any case, Clinton has now aligned herself with Republican groups like the Cuban Liberty Council, whose members are like anti-immigration zealots in reverse. The CLC routinely denounces Cuban- Americans who maintain too much contact with Castro's island. "You had people going to Cuba to celebrate the 15th birthday of their daughter, going to the beach, and that's what hurt the person who needed to go and see his family," says CLC director Ninoska Perez Castellon, who hosts a pro-Republican, anti- Castro talk-radio show.