Cuba barely blinks at presidential debate

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The surprise in Havana on Friday was that Cuban-U.S. relations never cropped up during the 90-minute debate Thursday between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry in Miami.

The candidates weren’t asked -- and neither tried -- to introduce the subject of such great sensitivity to a key voting block in next month’s elections, the 450,000-500,000 Cuban-American community in south Florida.

On Cuban radio, the debate was barely mentioned, while the main daily newspaper, Granma, ignored the event except to report on the protest against new restrictions on trips to Cuba held outside the University of Miami.

However, TV analyst Eduardo Dimas offered a brief wrap-up of the debate for morning TV watchers, saying that snap polls suggested Kerry was stronger than Bush but that it was too early to say what the impact will be. He said the Kerry campaign still seemed to lack coherence and that the senator was mainly drawing on the anti-Bush sentiment in the United States.

Few watching
Few Cubans were able to watch Thursday’s debate. Only those with access to tourist hotels, international news websites or in possession of illegal satellite dishes were able to view the first of three debates between the candidates.

At the same time, million of Cubans remained preoccupied with the deteriorating economy and a new wave of electricity blackouts causing daily misery across the island.

On paper, there is little difference between the two candidates when it comes to Cuba -- both embrace a hard-line stance against the Castro regime, support the decades-old sanctions policy against President Fidel Castro and encourage the opposition movement.

The only dispute is on the subject of strict travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans who wish to visit home -- under regulations imposed by the Bush administration in June, they can only return to their homeland once every three years after applying for special authorization and the amount of money they can bring with them is sharply cut.

Kerry opposes the measures and some pollsters have suggested that fury over those curbs might swing some new votes toward the senator, although the vast majority of eligible Cuban-Americans are still expected to support the current president.

Low expectations
Within Cuba, there is an unexpected consensus among Castro supporters and some of his loudest opponents about the restrictions: most think they are unhelpful and aimed purely at consolidating the conservative Cuban exile vote in Florida.

“Whoever the next president of the United States will be, we don’t have high expectations in Cuba,” said Gustavo Machin, head of the North America Desk of the Foreign Ministry. “I would describe it as low, or maybe no expectations at all.”

Machin, the foreign ministry point person on all matters relating to the United States, acknowledged that among Cubans themselves there is grave anxiety about Bush being re-elected.

“Because this guy has been able to invade a free country just because he wanted to do so, without taking account of public opinion of the United States, the opinion of the whole international community … and the United Nations,” Machin said.

On the streets of Havana, there is no difficulty finding anti-Bush voices. After all, he has talked up the threat of Castro when addressing Cuban-Americans and U.S. officials suggested that Cuba could produce biological weapons, an allegation rejected by the government and which was later retracted.

“Bush buys people to get their vote,” said Fidel Castro, not the president but a young man in Habana del Este, a working-class Havana neighborhood. “He also encourages others to be dishonest.”

The public has been primed over four decades to denounce the U.S. administration. According to government officials, the threat posed by the United States at the start of the revolution is more alive than ever.

Less than 12 hours before Kerry and Bush debated in Miami, the Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque held a three-hour news conference to again highlight what Havana sees as the “genocide” being committed on Cubans by the United States through its policies.

Influenced by extremists
Meantime, opposition figures -- little heard inside the island and derided as U.S. agents by the government -- see the sanctions as a distraction.

Elizardo Sanchez, Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said the U.S. administration is too close to what he described as “extremists in Miami.” Sanchez, who is dismissed by some anti-Castro groups as well as by U.S. officials as a dupe of the Cuban government, is quick to equate the government here to that of North Korea. He says Cubans have been frightened into silence after 45 years of oppression.

“Every totalitarian dictator needs an eternal enemy,” he said. “In Cuba’s case, no one had to invent any enemy because nearly every day Washington declares we are the enemy.”

Sanchez, who has been jailed for sedition, has come under a cloud in the past year, ever since the Cuban government released videotapes suggesting he has been in cahoots with state security for decades. He denied the allegations.

“Everything they are doing now is for the November elections,” said Vladimiro Roca, head of the fledgling Cuban Social Democratic party and an outspoken Castro critic.

Roca, the son of the Communist Party founder in Cuba and a former decorated Air Force pilot, is reluctant to criticize his American friends, he said.

Interviewed prior to the debate, he said the most important form of American support should be for the internal movement to reform the system.

But he dismissed the effectiveness of the tightened restrictions as a political gambit to win votes in November. “That was to help in the elections,” he said.