Latino Bloggers Watch 2008 Candidates Closely

In this week's political chat, bloggers Marisa Trevino of Latina Lista.net and Josue Sierra of Townhall.com discuss Sen. Barack Obama's pronouncements on Cuba policy, White House hopefuls who are confirmed to for a fall presidential forum sponsored by the Spanish-language television network Univision, and what the candidates must do to appeal to Latino voters.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a university struggles to strike a balance between accommodating faith and endorsing it. That's later in the program.

But first, presidential candidate Barack Obama tipped one of the great sacred cows of American politics this week. In an op-ed in The Miami Herald, he called for opening up relations with Cuba, a significant risk considering the power of Cuban-American voters in Florida.

Also, the major Democratic contenders have accepted an invitation to the presidential forum of the Spanish-language network Univision. On the Republican side, only Senator John McCain has agreed to appear. And parsing Michelle Obama's words. Did she tee off on Hillary? So, politics in the Sunshine State and new frontiers in wifely campaigning.

Joining us to talk about all of these is journalist and blogger Marisa Trevino. Her blog is LatinaLista.net. Also with us is Josue Sierra. He's an associate editor at the conservative online community Townhall.com and he blogs at josue.townhall.com

Welcome to the program both. Welcome back, I should say.

Mr. JOSUE SIERRA (Associate Editor, Townhall.com): Glad to be here, Michel.

Ms. MARISA TREVINO (Blogger, LatinaLista.net): Thank you.

MARTIN: So Marisa, let's start with you because Obama called for lifting restrictions on relatives of Cubans who want to visit the island or send money home, and lifting the restrictions that made it harder for those cultural or educational groups to go to Cuba. But those restrictions are relatively new, imposed by President Bush in 2004. So, you know, I called it a bold move in my introduction, but is it really that bold of a move?

Ms. TREVINO: To be honest, I think you're going to be highlighting two different camps here within the Latino community. We have the different sub-ethnic groups. And so for - as a Mexican American, looking at what's happening with Cuban Americans, even though I grew up in Florida, I know I can only speak from my perspective historically here, just from my contact with my friends there. And, I mean, it was something that nobody ever really wanted to do because they wanted to force Castro out, and so by holding all these restrictions on people, at one point that was the idea that it would make it just so unbearable. But I think I'm going to have to concede over to my colleague here to answer that.

MARTIN: Okay, Josue. Josue, what do you think? Is it really that big of a deal?

Mr. SIERRA: Well, I don't think so. It's a bit of a primary gambit by him, you know. Hillary is a contender - she's the frontrunner, so she really doesn't have that much work to do. He needs to set himself apart. So she's more for the status quo; obviously her response was no, she's not going to change it. And then, he's trying to get some of the Democratic voters, Cuban Americans who are for the dialogue and that sort of thing. They're not - you know, so the whole issue is more of a primary, I think, and he's trying to differentiate himself to try to steal a few votes.

MARTIN: Do you think that this will create a big splash in the community? In fact, the Democratic Party, the Miami-Dade Democratic Party has come out in opposition to his proposal. And yet I'm saying to myself, people think of the Cuban-American community as generally leaning conservative, generally leaning on the side of isolating Cuba politically. But many of the people coming still have relatives in Cuba. It seems to me that they would be interested in visiting them and sending gifts to them…

Mr. SIERRA: There's a very…

MARTIN: …and helping them survive.

Mr. SIERRA: There's a very interesting analysis at babalublog.com. And he's a Cuban-American conservative. And one of their writers, contributors, Henry Gomez, does a breakdown of some research that FIU did, Florida International University. And the fact of the matter is it takes a while when new immigrants from Cuba come into the country. At the beginning, they're more interested in getting their feet up, you know, economically, getting work and that sort of thing, but eventually, as they start looking back to their country, wanting freedom. And so it's a very interesting dynamic in terms of the timeframe from when they first arrive in Florida, as years go by, generational and things like that, so.

MARTIN: And I would imagine that it probably depends on whether you're here -how long you've been here because…

Mr. SIERRA: Right. Yeah.

MARTIN: …many of the early arrivals were able to bring their families in their entirety. But many of the later arrivals, it seems to me, are coming by boat or coming singly and still have someone…

Mr. SIERRA: Leaving family behind.

MARTIN: Leaving family behind.

Mr. SIERRA: Yeah.

MARTIN: So it'll be interesting to see (unintelligible)…

Mr. SIERRA: But despite that, there's still a large number that are still against in loosening the embargo.

MARTIN: What about in the Republican side, Josue? Do you see anybody on the Republican side talking about a change in policy?

Mr. SIERRA: I don't think so. It's not a good gain. It's not a good move. I mean, if you want the Cuban parts of South Florida, you just have to take a sound stand. And the fact of the matter is that looking at the situation in Cuba, the Castro brothers are in control of the economy. So loosening the embargo is not going to help the Cuban people. And the Cubans who have come up from Cuba know that, and so that's why I don't see any change in that direction.

MARTIN: All right. Marisa, let's talk about the Univision presidential forum. Now that's a forum now, not a debate, and the Democrats. Now, a lot of those candidates took their time accepting the invitations. Now, it seems that all the major Democrats are going to be involved. What changed?

Ms. TREVINO: I think there was a misunderstanding at the beginning. I think for some reason some of the candidates thought that it would be conducted in Spanish totally, and that for some reason they would have to answer in Spanish.

MARTIN: Was that a misunderstanding or was that the original plan?

Ms. TREVINO: I can't see that it was ever the original plan, because Univision has to know that aside from two of the candidates, the others are not fluent in Spanish. And so to make their point, there's no way that they could have conducted themselves in Spanish.

I think it was probably the hope, maybe, that they would try to speak some Spanish, and I think they will try to impress the viewers by throwing some words in there. But basically I think what we saw was that they wanted - for several reasons they wanted a level playing field, of course. But also I think a lot of the holdouts were just waiting to see who was going to accept the invitations.

MARTIN: Well, Hillary Clinton also said that now that they're calling it a forum and not a debate that that makes it more attractive to her. But what's the difference?

Ms. TREVINO: You know, I think it's a matter of semantics. I happened to speak to one of her aides at the time when Hillary was still undecided about it. And the aide had quoted me something about according to an agreement that all the candidates had made with the main party, the Democratic Party, that they weren't going to accept any debates that fell outside the prearranged ones or the prescheduled ones. And so I think that's just - it was just a matter of holding out and waiting to see who was going to participate and what the ground rules were. And I think once it was clarified that it would be conducted in English and that everybody would be required to speak in English, which would not give the advantage to Bill Richardson…

MARTIN: Or Chris Dodd.

Ms. TREVINO: Uh-huh. And I think that kind of eased some minds.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we're talking to bloggers Marisa Trevino and Josue Sierra about the week in politics.

Josue, only one Republican is onboard for the - obviously Univision, which is I think the largest Spanish-language network, also wants to hold a Republican forum. And I think this is also being done in conjunction with the University of Florida. Only one Republican onboard, that's John McCain. What's the logic?

I mean, the RNC under two previous chairmen has assiduously courted the Latino vote. They've been scouting for, recruiting, grooming candidates. There was talk of making Alberto Gonzales the first Latino Supreme Court justice. Of course, that's not going to happen. But are Republicans just not that interested in Latino vote this election? What's changed?

Mr. SIERRA: No, I think the strategy is different. It's not that they're not interested. It's - there's, you know, a lot of the conservative voters of Hispanic descent mastered the English language for the most part and so they're reaching them in English language venues. And like in my case, you know, I don't watch Univision. I don't really ever go to univision.com. So I don't think it's that they're not interested. It's that Univision is such a niche channel in considering the larger debate about English language versus Spanish language. And even though the debate's happening in English and all that, it still brings out a lot of things that I'm sure doesn't necessarily make them comfortable.

MARTIN: So, you think it's the idea that it would be seen as validating Spanish as a language equal to that of English in a public discourse in the U.S.? You think that's why?

Mr. SIERRA: Well, the Republican Party is very sensitive right now to the issue of multiculturalism in the extreme sense, and so perhaps, in that sense, I could understand how that be perceived as pandering to multiculturalism.

MARTIN: Okay. Finally, I wanted to talk about this issue around what Michelle Obama is alleged to have said and, you know, she said in a forum, you know, if you can't run your house, you can't run the White House. And Drudge and some of the other bloggers, you know, played this all clearly she's taking off - is this a swipe at Hillary? And, of course, some of the other reporters weighed in and said, oh, please, they took it out context. This is just campaign silliness.

I just wanted to ask you guys what you think about this? Marisa, what do you think about this? It just seems that we're paying more attention to everything that the spouses say. I wonder why that is and do you think that is valid? What do you think, Marisa?

Ms. TREVINO: Well, no, I don't think it's valid what she says. But I think why we're paying more attention is because we have a woman candidate. And for some reason we like to pit women against women. And if you can't pit the female candidate against the husband as much, well, then, you know, the woman can come in, the wife can come in, and say what she wants to say on behalf of her husband.

MARTIN: Okay, but on the Republican side, there's been always attention to Julie Giuliani and Fred Thompson's wife, Jeri, and you know, and they're sort of respected (unintelligible). They're not candidates and there's no woman running on that Republican side. So, what's it all about, Josue?

Mr. SIERRA: Well, actually, like what she said, I mean, it's great to hear someone actually talk about how a candidate's personal life and family life reflects on their character and their ability to lead. Whether it's true or not, I just - I'm glad somebody is pointing that out.

MARTIN: Do you think she was teeing off on Hillary Clinton or on the coincidence of the…

Mr. SIERRA: Sure. I don't, you know, all these candidates, they're professionals. They don't say things by mistake for the most - I mean, they are very careful about what they're saying, and I think it's very intentional.

MARTIN: But she's not a candidate. She's a…

Mr. SIERRA: Well, her husband. But, you know, the - all these wives, they're professionals in their own right. I mean, I know Fred Thompson's wife is a professional political operative and all that. So they're not just the typical first lady to be nice ladies who are going to promote literacy kind of thing, you know. They're definitely much more dynamic. We see that in Hillary.

She wasn't just this quiet first lady who went out and promoted good causes. She was right there next to Clinton. And so, in that sense, perhaps the role of the first lady has already evolved from Clinton's time in the administration and we're seeing that now in the campaign.

MARTIN: So you think that it's legitimate to look - Marisa, final word to you, very quickly.

Ms. TREVINO: Definitely are creating political agenda here, that there's room in the family for everybody.

MARTIN: Okay. Marisa Trevino is a journalist and blogger. You can read her work at LatinaLista.net. She joined us from CakeMix Recording Studios in Dallas. And Josue Sierra is an associate editor and blogger for the conservative online community Townhall.com. He was here with us in the studios. Thank you both so much.

Mr. SIERRA: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Let's talk again.

Mr. SIERRA: Good.

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