Obama Courts Cuban-American Voters

Sen. Barack Obama ventured into Cuban-American politics Saturday at a Democratic party fundraiser in Miami. The Illinois senator and presidential hopeful repeated his call to loosen restrictions on travel to Cuba.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Presidential hopeful Barack Obama was out courting votes today in what you might think is an unexpected quarter for a Democrat - among Cuban-Americans in Miami. Senator Obama used his appearance at the Miami Dade County Auditorium to speak about the proposal he made this week to ease some U.S. sanctions on Cuba.

NPR's Greg Allen was at the event, a fundraiser for the Miami Dade Democratic Party, and he joins me now.

Hello there, Greg.

GREG ALLEN: Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Before we get to the substance of Senator Obama's proposals, first, tell us a little bit about the crowd. We usually think of Cuban-Americans is part of the Republican camp.

ALLEN: Well, that's right, Debbie, and, you know, in fact, it's interesting because the place that they chose for Obama's speech here today was at the Miami Dade County Auditorium, and this is kind of famous in the Miami as being the place where President Ronald Reagan appeared in 1983.

He gave a speech then when he first proposed funding - well, he was actually supporting the creation of Radio Marti and talking about Cuba. And it's been -and his famous applause line there was Cuba Si, Castro No. It was an event that a lot of people here in Miami say that's really galvanized the Cuban-American community as Republicans.

And since then, they've been very important as an important voting bloc here in Florida, which is, of course, one of the most important swing states. They've been very influential in the state but the - Obama is coming here because, I think, many people here - Democrats at least - believe that there is some chance of gaining some of those voters back for Democratic Party. And recent polls show that an increasing number of Cuban-Americans are registering as independents and as Democrats. And that's the kind of crowd that Obama is hoping to reach here today.

ELLIOTT: What about his proposal for U.S.-Cuban relations, and how is that message playing? Is that something that he's using to reach out to these potential voters?

ALLEN: That's exactly right. And, you know, it's interesting because his proposal was made of - a lot of - the big splash here. To the people outside of Miami, it might not seem like that big of a deal. He's not proposing lifting the embargo. Some Democratic candidates have. Dennis Kucinich and Chris Dodd, for instance, have both suggested that the embargo be lifted.

What he' suggesting is something much more modest. He's talking about just loosening restriction and, in fact, lifting all restrictions on travel for Cuban-Americans to Cuba and remittances - sending money back to their friends and relatives in Cuba.

A couple of years ago in 2004, President Bush tightened those restrictions and that's been a move that's been hard for some people here to take because there's really close connections between many Cuban-Americans here and their family and friends there. We've got large numbers of Cuban-Americans who've come in the '80s and the '90s, and even still coming today. And those people who want to be able to go back, who want to be able to send money back, and that's the kind of people that Obama is hoping to reach with his proposal.

ELLIOTT: How was his speech received there today?

ALLEN: Well, he's talking, as we speak right now, and his speech is going over famously. The crowd here is - has got - we got a fair amount of Cubans in it. There's really a Miami crowd, much bigger than the Cuban-American community. And as you mentioned, it's a Democratic fundraisers. So you've got African-Americans here, you've got the white people here. You've got all kinds of Hispanics, of all ethnicity. But I talked to many Cubans-Americans here. The ones I've talked to, at least, were already solid Democratic, but many are impressed by Obama. And the crowd here is greeting him like more than just a presidential candidate, more like a rock star, and that, of course, we've seen elsewhere as well.

ELLIOTT: Greg, is there any risk here? You know, any time you start talking about changing policy regarding Cuba. That can be a touchy subject in Miami.

ALLEN: That's exactly right, Debbie. And that's what many people have suggested here. I mean, it's interesting outside of the Miami Dade County Auditorium, there was a huge demonstration (unintelligible) organizations(ph). They're huge. There's only about 40 people there, but it's a very loud demonstration by people who are very much in favor of keeping the policy the way it is. You can see a group of - people with bullhorns, making a big noise out there, and that's the kind of thing that happens when you weighed in the Cuba policy here in Miami. It can be a very touchy subject, and some - many people suggest that Obama could become somewhat of a lighting rod that could actually hurt him with the kind of the mainstream of the Cuban-American community here.

So we'll see how this plays out. He is taking a bit of a political risk here and - but it's just beginning. And we'll see how this plays and how other candidates respond.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Greg Allen at the Miami Dade County Auditorium. Thank you so much.

ALLEN: You're welcome, Debbie.

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