Political Winds Shift Among Miami's Cuban Exiles Politics in Miami have long been affected by the issue of Cuba. Hardliners who wanted Fidel Castro ousted have held sway over Washington's approach to the communist island.
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Political Winds Shift Among Miami's Cuban Exiles

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Political Winds Shift Among Miami's Cuban Exiles

Political Winds Shift Among Miami's Cuban Exiles

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This month about two dozen Cuban exile organizations called for the Bush administration to ease two-year-old travel restrictions to Cuba. The move underscores the changing nature of politics in Miami, where for the last 47 years hardliners against the Castro regime have held political sway.

Today our series on Miami's Cuban exile community ends with a look at the increasing differences between the moderates in Miami and the hardliners who still influence U.S. policy towards Cuba.

NPR'S Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.

(Soundbite of Spanish-language radio broadcast)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sitting in a soundproof studio, Armando Perez Roura is hosting his morning radio show, "En Caliente," on Spanish-language station Radio Mambi. A television screen in front of him shows a live feed of Cuba's state-run television station, Cubavision. The topic of the day, in fact the topic every single day since he came onto the airwaves years ago, is Cuba.

(Soundbite of Spanish-language radio broadcast)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This caller is railing against those who want to lift the travel restrictions to the island. Perez Roura is the unofficial voice of the hardliners in the exile community. And if you tune in, it sounds as if Cuban-Americans have one voice - one that eschews any kind of engagement. But Miami's exile community is not monolithic. It's changing.

Mr. FRANCISCO HERNANDEZ (Cuban American National Foundation): I am Francisco Hernandez and I am the president of the Cuban American National Foundation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The foundation, under the late Jorge Mas Canosa, shaped America's Cuba policy, getting Radio and TV Marti onto the airwaves, lobbying to tighten the embargo. In fact, the Cuban American National Foundation, under Mas Canosa, defined what it meant to be an exile hardliner. Now it's advocating dialogue with Cuba.

Hernandez, one of the group's founders, says the exile community has to seize the opportunity that Castro's illness has brought.

Mr. HERNANDEZ: Cubans have to interact more. Cubans have to talk to each other more. And yes, we have to talk to the people in power. Not necessarily with Raul Castro, because we believe that there is not much difference between Raul and Fidel Castro. But there are other people in power in Cuba that we believe realize that they have to change.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: John de Leon is on the board of directors of the Cuban Committee for Democracy, another moderate exile group that also recently petitioned for a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba. He says the climate in Miami is different now.

Mr. JOHN DE LEON (Cuban Committee for Democracy): You've got to remember that at the height of the polemic here in south Florida back in the 1970s and '80s, people were being bombed, people were being killed. If you had an opposing point of view, you would lose your job. Some people lost their lives as a result of speaking out on issues they believed in related to Cuba.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That doesn't happen anymore. Still, de Leon says people outside of here view Miami's Cuban Americans badly.

Mr. DE LEON: Some of the principles people here in Miami are fighting for is things like freedom of expression in Cuba; freedom for political prisoners on the island. Yet they're not able to muster any sort of support. You've got to start asking yourself, why is that? And I think part of it has to be the way they've delivered the message. And it's been a - oftentimes - very rabid, very mean-spirited, unfortunately, sort of polemic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's why John de Leon says the moderate voice is important. Still, moderate groups complain that they have little political clout, that diversity of opinion is not being reflected in the political scene.

Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who recently called for Castro's assassination, are Cuban American members of Congress who have helped shape Washington's tough Cuba policy. Lincoln Diaz-Balart is arguably the most influential among them. He is also a Republican representative from the state of Florida, and Mario's brother.

Representative LINCOLN DIAZ-BALART (Republican, Florida): Our estimates are that at least $5 billion would flow to Cuba if we were to let U.S. tourism go there, each year. Imagine if we unilaterally said you can have those billions of dollars and you can keep your prisons full of prisoners of conscience. That might retard the transition for more decades.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why is Cuba different than China? Why is Cuba being held to a harsher standard than all these other...

Rep. DIAZ-BALART: No, not a harsher standard. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese people and the Chinese people are being held to a harsher standard. No, no, no, wait a minute. The people who are suffering...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But there's engagement, there's discussion, there's trade.

Rep. DIAZ-BALART: I know. And ask the dissidents in Vietnam, and ask the political prisoners in Vietnam if they've benefited.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a policy, though, that's at odds with what the majority of Americans say they want. A Gallup poll this month found that 67 percent of Americans favor restoring diplomatic relations with the communist island.

Rep. DIAZ-BALART: People think, well, Cuban Americans are nuts. Well, but, you know, there's a lot of people here that had family members killed. There's a lot of people here that spent 30 years in jail. So there is a lot of feelings here, rightly so.

GARCIA NAVARRO: Miami's Cuban American mayor, Carlos Alvarez, says he's shocked that Americans aren't more understanding of their Cuban American position.

Mayor CARLOS ALVAREZ (Miami): The biggest challenges that I see that the Cuban American community has is for other people in the country to realize that as a community we've matured. Yes, there's still your radical groups that, you know, are extremely hardcore, but you know, the majority of Cuban Americans have matured politically and we're more open to different ideas.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Miami seems to exemplify the adage the more things change, the more they stay the same. The hard-line exile community is far more politically active, better financed. People who want to relax some of the restrictions, like recent Cuban immigrants, are not engaged in the same way.

Do you think someone who didn't support the embargo and didn't support the travel ban could be elected into office here in Miami?

Mayor ALVAREZ: It would be probably very hard, very hard.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Miami.

MONTAGNE: And you can hear other stories in this series at npr.org.

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