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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.”
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 inhumane—and totally contrary to quote-unquote family values—to 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.
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.
Soon the lights went out, the curtain went up, and Obama appeared at a podium in front of a 20-foot-tall illuminated American flag. When the audience ceased its adoring roar, he began the stump speech that has drawn large crowds on the campaign trail. “The problem isn’t the American people,” he said. “It’s the can’t-do, won’t-do, won’t-even-try, don’t-know-how style of politics in Washington. It’s shut out the American people, let ’em down, and forced them to settle year after year.”
No one was invisible to Obama, it seemed. He saw everyone: folks without health insurance, troops who have performed brilliantly in Iraq but need to come home, parents who can’t afford college tuition, people who need a biofuels infrastructure in this country. He even saw Cuban-Americans.
“We need a new foreign policy in this country that has less Washington sense and more common sense, less Washington judgment and more good judgment!” Obama told the crowd. “Let me give you one example that many of you are all too familiar with: Just 90 miles from here, there’s a country where justice and freedom are out of reach. That’s why my policy towards Cuba will be guided by one word: liberty. Libertad!”
After declaring that “freedom for all Cubans must begin with justice for Cuban political prisoners,” Obama got to the heart of the matter. “There are few better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban-Americans and the money they send to Cuba to help make their families less dependent on Castro’s regime,” he said. “That’s why, when I’m president, I’ll grant Cuban-Americans unrestricted rights to visit families and send remittances to the island!” The audience erupted in cheers. “Because that’s the way to bring about real change in Cuba!”
Democratic Party apparatchiks from the Obama campaign and the progressive New Democrat Network note that the number of Cuban-Americans who are registered Republicans stands at a little more than 80 percent but has fallen 10 percent over the past 10 years. But that’s not the big news. “Recent polling shows a 6 percent increase in Cuban-Americans
who will vote Democratic next year,” says Miami-
based political consultant Jeffrey Garcia. “You’re talking 35,000 votes.”
That may sound like a pittance, but if the margin of victory in November 2008 falls between Bush’s margins of 537 votes in 2000 and 381,000 votes in 2004, those votes loom larger. Add the tens of thousands of other Hispanics who have registered as Democrats in Florida since 2003 and, as Garcia contends, “the Republicans are in deep shit.”
He and others point to opinion surveys that consistently find that about two-thirds of Cuban exiles who moved to the U.S. before 1984 support travel sanctions, but that two-thirds of those who migrated after that oppose them. Many latter-day immigrants from Cuba, however, aren’t U.S. citizens and can’t vote—and many who are don’t vote. But those who can and do are now likely to favor Obama, some strategists think. “The Cuba issue was dead as a status quo issue. Everybody cuts to the right and nothing happens,” says the NDN’s Joe Garcia. “Obama cut down the middle. He didn’t just say, ‘I’ll lift the embargo,’ because that’s not a nuanced position. He said, ‘Look, I’m for the embargo as a philosophical thing. You shouldn’t give in to dictatorships. However, when it comes to reaching out to family, we should use Cuban-Americans as agents of change.’ So he gives a respectful nod to an important electorate. It speaks to a huge percentage of Cuban-Americans who are very frustrated, and it speaks to younger Cuban-Americans who are very interested in this issue because they have family abroad. And it also speaks to some older Cuban-Americans who are tremendously frustrated by the policies of the U.S. government.”
NDN president Simon Rosenberg, who formed the group after splitting from the more centrist Democratic Leadership Council dominant during Bill Clinton’s era, predicts that Obama’s Cuba concoction will generate votes beyond the Cuban-American realm. “The brilliance of this position by Obama is that it’s also very appealing to the non-Cuban community in South Florida, who are deeply weary of the fight with Cuba,” says Rosenberg. “What he’s saying to the people of Florida is ‘I’m willing to take risks to solve this problem.’ That’s going to be very appealing to non-Cubans as well as Cubans.”
Rosenberg knows better than to publicly comment on Hillary Clinton’s endorsement of the Bush policy but suggests that she could always change her mind. “My line on this is that, if Democrats actually pursue this issue next year, it will be a wedge issue in the Cuban-American community against the Republicans,” he said. “Because the Republicans are in the wrong place on this in terms of opinion in the Cuban-American community. I also think they’re in the wrong place on this in terms of geopolitics. I think the Bush administration made a mistake, and they haven’t corrected it.”
Other pundits think Obama’s policy move may not matter because Clinton is opting for the road more traveled, namely the one with Republicans on it. “Thirty thousand is a lot of votes,” acknowledges Peter Brown, assistant director of the Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. But, he adds, “you certainly don’t win the Democratic primary
in Florida with the votes of Cuban-Americans. They are disproportionately Republican.” Moreover, Clinton would be millions of Democratic votes ahead of Obama even without Cuban-American Democrats in the picture. “She’s only up 30 points in Florida over Obama,” Brown notes sarcastically. Therefore, Hillary’s Cuba-policy position, he speculates, “might well be something aimed at the general election rather than the primary.”
Bill Clinton won only about 25 percent of the Cuban-American vote in November 1992, but 40 percent—a historic high—in 1996. That was the year of the Brothers to the Rescue incident, in which Cuban MiGs shot down two Cessnas, killing four anti-Castro activists as they flew defiantly toward the island. Clinton promptly signed the Helms-Burton bill, which tightened trade sanctions on Cuba and appeased outraged exiles. In 2000, Al Gore mustered only 20 percent, but that was only a few months after the Elián González incident, in which the Clinton administration staged an FBI raid on a Little Havana house that spring to enforce a federal court’s order to return the boy to his father in Cuba.
“Hillary learned her lesson, and it’s ‘You don’t appeal to the Cuban-American vote by being a liberal,’ ” says GOP pollster Dario Moreno, who has made a career studying Cuban-American politics. “She wants to get percentages of the Cuban-American vote in the high 30s or low 40s, and she’s not going to do that by saying she’s for massive change—what’s perceived in the community as massive change—in Cuba policy.”
In other words, the small force of Cuban-Americans who are incensed by Bush’s sanctions on family visits to Cuba —even if it’s a growing force—isn’t big enough to change Hillary’s mind. “It’s what I call a drip effect,” Clinton strategist Fernand Amandi says of Cuban-Americans leaving GOP ranks. Moreover, these defectors aren’t becoming loyal Democrats. “They are shying away from partisan politics and becoming more independent,” Amandi adds.
Even Cuban-American Republicans who are aggravated with Bush because of the Iraq War and agitated by the anti-immigration rhetoric of other Republicans will find it hard
to stomach voting for a Democrat, says Amandi: “You have to remember, so much of what it means to be Cuban is to be Republican.”
Obama’s sweet Cuban concoction might have melted away in the Florida heat if not for Univision’s September 9 Democratic Candidates Forum at the University of Miami. The front-runners’ schedules had them in Iowa, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, California—anywhere but
Florida. Obama and Clinton had promised the Democratic National Committee that they would stay away from Florida until after its new January 29 primary, because the DNC had deemed the change in primary date a violation of party rules.
But the candidates had already committed to the unprecedented Univision forum. Democrats everywhere were saying the event symbolized the pivotal role that Latinos, most of whom vote Democratic, will play in next year’s general election.
Democratic Party cognoscenti descended on Miami ahead of the forum to lobby journalists on the big issues for Hispanics: the Iraq War, immigration reform, lack of health care, the education crisis. And Cuba. Dozens dropped by the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables on the Sunday morning and afternoon before that evening’s forum to participate in a conference that the New Democrat Network had organized to discuss the rise of Latino political power in the U.S.
Among them was New Jersey senator Menendez, who’s a Clinton campaign co-chairman and in charge of its Hispanic outreach. His power in New Jersey stems from his stance as a social moderate who is fanatical about keeping the embargo on Cuba, including travel sanctions. New Jersey has about 100,000 Cuban-American voters; Menendez defeated Republican Thomas Kean by about 300,000 votes in last year’s grueling Senate race.
I caught Menendez in a hallway just before he was due to address the conference and asked him to explain Hillary’s endorsement of the Bush policy. “I think this is not the moment to make unilateral changes, especially with what’s going on on the island,” he replied. “This moment of whether or not Fidel Castro is just on his waning days, and how Raul will be able to try to maintain control, is not a moment to be showing changes in policy that sound like we’re saying, ‘We’re willing to work with you.’ Because what that allows Raul to do is go and say to the people [in Cuba] who want change, ‘Well, you know what? Look, the Americans are beginning to deal with me.’ It is a fundamentally wrong timing of a policy.”
And then Menendez went in and told the conferees that Democrats must push for legislation that promotes family unification for America’s immigrants. Except, apparently, for Cuban-Americans.
That evening, a crowd of 7,000 students, faculty, university administrators, and assorted Democratic VIPs packed into the Bank United Center. It was a notable event: As the candidates appeared on stage for mic checks, about 100 journalists squeezed into a conference room under the stands at the opposite end of the arena to watch the forum on big-screen TVs.
Univision news anchors Jorge Ramos and María Elena Salinas spent the first 45 minutes asking the candidates questions about Iraq, immigration and border fences, and relations between the U.S. and Latin America. It was not a debate; they employed a format in which each candidate didn’t get a chance to respond to each question.
At one point, Clinton vowed that she would “absolutely” push Congress to pass “comprehensive” immigration-reform legislation during her first year in office, adding, “I am proud to work with my friend, Senator Menendez, on trying to make sure that in the process of doing immigration reform we don’t separate families, we try to have family unification as one of the goals.”
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 hemisphere—namely 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 alluded—Evo Morales in Bolivia, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, even the controversial Hugo Chávez—had 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.”