Supporters cheer as U.S. President Bush arrives at debate site in Florida
Marc Serota  /  Retuers file
Cuban Americans cheer the arrival of President Bush at the first debate against Sen. John Kerry in Miami on Sept. 30.
By and NBC News
updated 10/13/2004 6:56:33 AM ET 2004-10-13T10:56:33

Four years ago, Cuban Americans turned out in droves to support President Bush in Florida.

With the Elian Gonzalez drama still fresh in their minds, and encouraged by the Republican's hostility toward Fidel Castro, four out of five Cuban-Americans backed Bush in south Florida, helping tip an election where the difference turned on a few hundred votes.

This year, with a tight race again predicted in the sunshine state, the Republicans are again counting on south Florida’s exiles. Yet Democrats think Sen. John Kerry can upset the calculation on Nov. 2, thanks to a Bush administration policy they believe has backfired.

In June, the administration unveiled a series of measures to reinforce the four-decade-old economic embargo of Cuba, a policy aimed at hastening the fall of Fidel Castro’s communist regime by denying hard currency to his economy.

The most contentious, at least for the exiles, was a restriction on visits by Cuban Americans to Cuba — once every three years instead of annually — and on the amount of money they could send home to family members. It also narrowed the criteria for family members, restricting funds to parents and siblings.

What impact?
It hurt a community that is fiercely antagonistic toward Castro and to virtually any softening of the embargo.

“This policy puts us in a huge bind,” said Jorge Mursuli, a Cuban-American who fled the island when he was 6 years old. “I resent anyone getting between me and my family,” he said.

Before Mursuli’s mother passed away, she asked him to take care of her surviving sister in Cuba. Mursuli’s aunt, who is in her 70s, has no one to care for her in Cuba and with the new policy, her relatives in the United States cannot send money since they are not immediate family.

“Politics is one thing, but blood is thicker than politics,” Mursuli said. “[The policy] is downright offensive.”

This is why Raul Martínez, the Democratic mayor of Hialeah, the fifth-largest city in Florida, thinks the restrictions were a “sad” mistake.

Martinez, who left Cuba 44 years ago, believes the policy will help his party’s candidate. While Kerry favors the economic sanctions imposed on Cuba four decades ago, he has vowed to roll back the restrictions on Cuban-Americans.

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Republicans, for their part, assert the Cuban-American base will stick with Bush. “That is wishful thinking on the part of the Democrats,” said U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American lawmaker who advocates a hard-line policy toward Castro. “There will be a larger margin for President Bush than in 2000,” he said.

Who will vote?
The eventual breakdown of the Cuban-American vote is hard to determine although there’s reason to believe the limits haven’t helped Bush as much as his supporters may have hoped.

A survey in June on behalf of the New Democratic Network by Bendixen and Associates, an independent polling firm based in Miami, found that 75 percent of the 437,332 Miami-Dade registered voters are Cuban-Americans.

And the survey, carried out as the new regulations went into effect, broke down that exile community into three groups.

  • Those born in Cuba and who came to the United States before 1980. They represent 50 percent of Miami-Dade voters and were described as the “historic exiles” who favor a hard-line policy toward Cuba. Of those, the majority favored Bush by 89 percent with only eight percent siding with Kerry.
  • The second group, 15 percent, fled the island since 1980 and has closer ties to Cuba. They have more relatives on the island, and are therefore more affected by the new restrictions. The majority favored Kerry by 40 percent, with 29 percent backing Bush, and 31 percent undecided.
  • The third group made up 10 percent of the registered voters, and these were American-born children of Cubans. They do not have direct ties to Cuba and favored Kerry by 58 percent, against 38 percent for Bush, 10 percent were undecided.

Within Cuba, the impact of the restrictions are already being felt, by ordinary Cubans as well as by the Castro government.

Until the new curbs, economists estimated remittances added between $700 million to $1 billion to the Cuban economy; an invaluable addition to Cubans who otherwise have no access to the currency that has become a vital supplement to peso salaries (about $12 a month) and pensions.

“Remittances play a role to help support the people in Cuba,” said Camila Ruiz of the Cuban American National Foundation, the largest exile group. “The family-to-family remittance allow for people to become independent [of the government],” she said.

Carlos Saladrigas, chairman of the Cuba Studies Group, another exile organization, said the restrictions were “a huge mistake” by the U.S. government.

“They are the wrong measures to take,” he said. “Why should our government make those decisions that affect people and families?”

Upset Cubans
Cuban officials also are upset at the restrictions, although for reasons that will please many exiles in Florida. The government says the United States is starving the island by tightening sanctions first imposed in 1961, two years after Fidel Castro came to power.

“It’s absurd,” said Pedro Alvarez, head of the Cuban trade body, Alimport. “It’s also a measure that goes against American legislation, hurts the Cuban Americans in the United States and the Cuban family here.”

In an interview with, Alvarez suggested Cuba might retaliate against the new measures by rolling back on the amount of agricultural products purchased from the United States. Alimport has bought nearly $1 billion of U.S. goods since trade was resumed in 2001.

But because the Cuban government is unhappy, the measures may have achieved the goals set out by the Bush administration. Other elements of the package included increased funding to support democratic activists in Cuba and for Radio Marti, the U.S.-backed radio station.

U.S. officials say Washington isn’t unsympathetic to the families’ plight but that the restrictions were necessary to pressure Castro. “We see the negative impact [on the families],” one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We are not Pollyanna.”

Ultimately, hurting the Havana government may assuage the Cuban-American voters for whom defeating Castro remains the No. 1 goal.

“I don’t think it will have an impact on the elections at all whatsoever,” said Alberto Milian, an exile and former prosecutor who is now running for Miami-Dade state attorney.

“Kerry has not offered any alternatives," the Republican said. "The Cuban-Americans will come out in large numbers [for Bush].”

Carmen Sesin is an assignment editor with NBC News. Sean Federico-O’Murchu is a senior editor with


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