Ted Jackovics, Tampa Tribune, Fla. –
TAMPA — Nearly 50 years have passed since the Cuban Missile Crisis, but you wouldn’t know it from rhetoric circulating in advance of the 2012 U.S. presidential election.
Mitt Romney, in a 43-page white paper on presidential strategy, labeled Cuba among the world’s “rogue nations” along with Iran, North Korea and Venezuela.
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, who says the United States should end its Cuba trade embargo, was rebuffed by a fellow Republican congressman who said Paul’s image as president would include Iranian nuclear missiles in Cuba, the National Review Online said.
Despite a near-unanimous, hard-line Republican outlook toward the Cuban regime, U.S.-Cuba issues have ranked well below the economy, health care and all things anti-Obama in intensity and frequency.
That is expected to change, however, with the Republican National Convention in Tampa, held in a region with the third-largest Cuban-American population in the country, and a state with 1.2 million Cuban-Americans and 27 electoral votes.
“Republicans absolutely know the importance of the Hispanic vote and the Cuban-American portion of that vote,” University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus said.
The Hispanic-American vote has been leaning toward Republicans in Florida, and the Cuban-American vote remains an integral part of that dynamic, MacManus said.
“Even if the candidates don’t talk about it initially, Cuban-U.S. issues are bound to emerge from Florida onto the national scene,” MacManus said. “Tampa is a perfect place to highlight the Cuba story.”
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With 15,000 journalists converging on Tampa in August to cover the convention, Ybor City and other local venues will provide ideal backdrops for stories, she said.
Tampa’s business and Cuban-American communities have intensified their focus on U.S.-Cuba issues in recent months.
They have parlayed the Obama administration’s relaxation of certain travel restrictions and the launch of charter flights last year between Tampa International Airport and Cuba into a quest for enhanced trade prospects, including more cargo service and a new passenger ferry at the Port of Tampa.
The World Trade Center Tampa Bay has encouraged Tampa Port Authority commissioners and the port director to travel to Cuba to begin a dialogue about trade.
With a few exceptions, the vocal elite in the Tampa Bay region and the local Cuban-Americans favor normalizing U.S. trade and travel with Cuba.
President Barack Obama loosened some guidelines on travel in 2009 and 2011, but has not discontinued the trade embargo that permits only a handful of U.S. exports to Cuba, a necessity for realizing Tampa-Cuba business goals.
Some in South Florida remain staunchly opposed to trade and travel advances under the Cuban regime. Among them is Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Miami, whose parents are Cuban immigrants.
Rubio, frequently mentioned as a potential Republican vice presidential candidate, has refrained from endorsing anyone in the presidential primary, but if he does, it will heighten focus on Cuba issues.
The Republican presidential frontrunners with the exception of Paul, who said during a Republican debate that it is time to start talking to Cuba have taken a hard-line stance toward Cuba relations.
Romney wants to launch Latin American trade promotions in his first 100 days in office, but offers no specifics on Cuba beyond saying the trade campaign would “draw a stark contrast between free enterprise and the ills of the authoritarian socialist model offered by Cuba and Venezuela.”
Newt Gingrich, at a December book signing in Naples, said he would not discontinue the Cuban flights Obama authorized, but would not end the trade embargo until Cuba had free elections.
Rick Perry has drawn little attention for his stance on Cuba issues, with the exception of his “Bay of Pigs Moment,” an apparent gaffe in endorsing a new Monroe Doctrine toward Latin America “like we used against the Cubans in the ’60s.”
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who dropped her bid for the GOP nomination last week, opposed involvement with the Castro government and suggested that Hezbollah could build missile sites in Cuba, Huff Post Politics reported.
The emergence of Rick Santorum, who nearly tied Romney for support in the Iowa caucuses, focused attention on how the former U.S. senator’s tough stance against illegal immigration would play among Cuban-Americans in Florida’s presidential preference primary Jan. 31.
Although the immigration issue is not directly tied to Cuban trade and travel issues, Santorum’s newly enhanced presence presents opportunities for him to differentiate himself from the other candidates during his Florida campaign this month.
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“Judging from what has happened in the Republican debates, I am afraid the U.S.-Cuba issue has been relegated to a very insignificant level,” said Francisco Hernandez, president of the nonpartisan Cuban American National Foundation in Miami. “In any case, we hope that will change from now until summer.”
The foundation will attend the convention in Tampa and circulate questionnaires on U.S.-Cuba issues to the candidates as it did before the 2008 presidential election, hoping to place Cuba issues on the national forefront for two prime reasons.
“It is a matter of national interest because if something happens in Cuba, it affects the United States and especially Florida,” Hernandez said.
“Secondly, I believe Cuba is at a position … that things are going to happen there in the next couple of years. We are going to have to be aware of what is going on in the island and be prepared to act on it. We don’t want to be affected negatively by what could happen in Cuba.”
Cuba’s launch into oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico could help its economy and has drawn much attention in Florida because of environmental concerns.
New home-ownership rules that took effect in November to enable Cubans to buy and sell homes without government approval has drawn little attention in the United States, but could stimulate the Cuban economy.
Although the proportion of Cuban-American voters among Hispanic voters is diminishing, Cuba is still an important issue, said Philip Williams, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida.
“There are important changes in Cuba, not evolving into a free-market economy, but certainly changes that provide opportunities for new business initiatives,” Williams said.
Williams said there is little downside for Republican contenders to take a hard line on Cuban issues, particularly during the primaries.
“When you move into the national election, there is some potential downside,” Williams said, citing Obama’s winning by a large margin the under-30 vote among Cuban-Americans in 2008.
“But I think with the upcoming primary at the end of January (in Florida) you will see more discussion of Cuban issues.”