By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Not that the CLC is backing Hillary. Indeed, the CLC and other rightist exile groups are cynical about her embrace of the Bush Cuba policy. Perez says it surprised no one in her circles. "The woman is a political animal in every sense of the word," she sneers. "So I think that she has that ability to place herself where it's most convenient for her."
Still, Perez calls Obama "ill-advised" on Cuba, echoing Hillary's recent insult that he is "naive, frankly," on foreign policy. And she praises Hillary for voting to increase funding for Radio and TV Martí, the U.S. government's broadcast services to Cuba. Obama has opposed the increase. The Martís, the product of a deal between President Reagan and the Republican Cuban exiles, have soaked up more than half a billion taxpayer dollars since 1985. Today, despite federal investigative findings that they suffer from negligible audiences in Cuba and rampant cronyism at their Miami studios, the broadcast operations still have a $37 million annual budget.
The hosts of Miami's Spanish- language radio and TV talks shows, who tend to be militantly anti-Castro and pro-Republican, trashed Obama's proposal in the days leading up to his August 25 visit to Little Havana for a local Democratic Party fundraiser. When that day came, a group of about 50 demonstrators from the irascible anti-Castro group Vigilio Mambisa gathered across the street from the Dade County Auditorium, where Obama was to speak to about 1,800 people. The protesters held anti-Obama signs and took incessant turns on a badly distorted megaphone, shouting such phrases as "¡Abajo Obama!" ("Down with Obama!") and "¡Communista!"
That was predictable. But the new twist was a small group of counter-demonstrators holding pro-Obama signs on the auditorium side of the street. "There is a certain sector of the Miami population that thinks that anybody who wants to do anything that's outside of the status quo is somehow pro-Castro," said Chris Cabral, a 20-year-old Colombian-American student at Florida International University, who had retreated up the auditorium steps to head inside for Obama's speech. "They'll attack anybody who says, 'Let's lift travel restrictions on Cuban families who want to visit dying relatives in Cuba.' That's how adamant they are. That's how extreme they are. They want to red-bait anybody who disagrees with them. Any sort of Democrat they want to attack as being communist."
Bemused, he looked out at the protesters and added, "What's ironic is, right next to them there are a bunch of people [demonstrating] for Republican candidate Ron Paul, who is in favor of lifting the embargo. But I have a feeling most of them don't know that. Do you see them yelling anything about Ron Paul? No."
The anti-Castro vitriol was reserved for Obama, even though his plan would leave all sanctions intact except the travel restrictions. That moderate approach appealed to Giancarlo Sopo, a 24-year-old Cuban-American and Harvard Extension School student who organized the counter-demonstration and formed a support group, Unidos con Obama. He noted that his mother, who hadn't voted for a Democrat since the '80s, and his grandmother, who has never voted for one, were inside the auditorium because Obama's proposal "inspired" them. "It starts a conversation that's been quiet for too long," said Sopo. "It's not a monolithic exile community. There are many beliefs, and the majority of us disagree with the measures of the Bush administration. We've been doing the same thing over and over again for 50 years, and it's time for change."
Inside the old auditorium, one had to wonder whether Hillary Clinton was indeed missing an opportunity. "Imagine, in the heart of Little Havana! Look at this!" Joe Garcia, the 43-year-old chairman of the local Democratic Party's executive committee, yelled from the stage to a crowd that was equal parts white and black, Hispanic and Anglo. "Today we gather to celebrate the beginning of the end of the Bush era in American politics!" The crowd erupted in claps and cheers. "Just as the possibility of freedom begins to dawn, all the Bush administration offers is more of the same! We thank you, Senator Obama, for coming to Miami and challenging the policy of the status quo by letting the Cuban people lead the way to make the possibility for a peaceful and just transition more likely!"
Garcia chose not to mention a great irony that saturated the event: Ronald Reagan had spoken right there in 1983 at the invitation of Garcia's political mentor, the late Jorge Mas Canosa, charismatic founder of the Cuban-American National Foundation. Reagan's fulminations against Castro that day, along with pledges to increase sanctions on Cuba and beam broadcasts into the island, ushered in a long period of Cuban-American endearment with the Republican Party.
But 20 years later, the Castro regime was as entrenched as ever, and even many embargo loyalists realized it wasn't working. In 2003, Garcia and Jorge Mas Jr. engineered a policy coup at the foundation, declaring the embargo a failure and calling for dialogue with the Cuban government. That caused a mass exodus of Republican members from the group; many of them formed the Cuban Liberty Council. Now the head of the New Democrat Network's national Hispanic Strategy Center, Garcia has pushed Democrats to back the very policy that Obama was about to preach.