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Obama must have been dying to get to that point. And anchorman Ramos's subsequent Cuba question to Hillary was a softball: "Mrs. Clinton, what do you think would happen in Cuba without Fidel Castro, and what role would the U.S. play after his death?"
She steered clear of her support for Bush's travel restrictions, then beaned Bush because several new leftist presidents had emerged in Latin America on his watch.
"The Cuban people deserve freedom and democracy and we're all hopeful that that can be brought about peacefully," she said. "It appears as though the reign of Castro is reaching an end. We don't know what will follow Fidel Castro, but we need to do everything we can to work with our friends in Latin America who are democratic nations, with the Europeans and others, to try to bring about a peaceful transition to democracy and freedom for the Cuban people. Now, that requires that we work with the entire hemisphere. I remember in 1994 when my husband hosted the Summit of the Americas. At that time, there was only one antidemocratic, anti-American leader in the hemispherenamely Castro. Look at what we face today because of the misguided, bullying policy of this president. So let's reverse it and get ready for freedom in Cuba."
Latin-American studies majors in the audience might have wondered just who these new "antidemocratic" leaders were. Like it or not, all the leftists to whom Clinton alludedEvo Morales in Bolivia, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, even the controversial Hugo Chávezhad gained power in internationally certified democratic balloting. Her rap was a neocon gloss worthy of a Fox News talk show. But no one onstage called her on it.
Ramos then put the same Cuba question to Connecticut senator Chris Dodd, who staked a position to the left of Hillary's. "The transition is already occurring," said Dodd. "The question is whether or not we're going to sit on the sidelines or be a part of this transition. . . . As president of the United States, I would begin to unravel that embargo. I would lift travel restrictions so Cuban-Americans can go visit their families."
That met with loud cheers and applause. And Dodd got more when he added, "I would be lifting restrictions on remittances. We need to engage in a constructive and positive way. This is hurting us as well throughout the Americas. Our ability to engage the rest of this hemisphere is directly related to our ability to engage intelligently in this transition. It takes new, bold leadership to do this."
Salinas, the other moderator, then moved on with a question for Dennis Kucinich about the problem of high-school dropouts in the Latino community. Obama had no chance to even respond to the Cuba question.
After the forum, candidates Dodd, Bill Richardson, and Dennis Kucinich showed up in the spin room; the others sent proxies. Everyone was taking shots at the front-runner.
Obama's spinners tried to make up for their candidate's lost opportunity. Federico Peña scoffed at Clinton's Cuba answer. "I was at the Summit of the Americas too, but I think that the point that has to be made is, how do we engage Cuba?" Peña said. "We're talking about policy in Iraq and we're talking about how we're going to deal with North Koreans publicly. We ought to talk really publicly about how we're going to deal with Cuba."
Fred Balsera and Frank Sanchez, the political strategists, threw the hardballs for Obama. "They are playing Cuban-American politics of 10, 15 years ago," Balsera contended, referring to Clinton and Menendez.
Sanchez interjected, "I also think that she didn't want to appear to be playing catch-up to [Obama's] innovation. Once he did that, she didn't want to be saying, 'Me too.'"
"But she could have said, 'My policy is to return to the Bill Clinton policy, and I'm glad that you agree with our position back then,' " Balsera replied. "I think that when you look at Cuban-American politics and you don't understand it well, you don't track it well, it's easy to fall into Cuban-American politics from 15 years ago."
Sanchez nodded and said, "There's no longer a monolith."
Clinton spinners were scarce. Former Florida Democratic Party chairman Alfredo Duran, a Cuban exile and longtime embargo opponent, walked in to spin for Dodd. "Hillary's been dancing around this issue," he grumbled. "Because Hillary has got Bob Menendez running her Spanish campaign, and Bob Menendez is very committed to the old Cuban-American power structure [in Florida]the old establishment, the money people. He doesn't want to rock that boat. So she's following more or less his lead, which I think is a big mistake."