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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 April, 2004, 14:15 GMT 15:15 UK
Bush and Kerry court Cuban swing vote

By Daniel Lak
BBC correspondent in Miami

Fidel Castro
Relations with Cuba are becoming an issue in election year

You can hear the clatter of dominos, mixed with loud conversation and occasional laughter, from a block away.

Maximo Gomez Park, also known as Domino Park, is the social centre of Miami's Little Havana neighbourhood.

Every day, hundreds of men and some women come here to play intense and often raucous games of dominoes. And to talk about politics, Cuban politics.

"We remember our homeland and the tragedy that has happened there since Fidel Castro came to power", says Julio Valdez, a 66-year old who has lived in Miami since 1960.

"He slams a domino tile down on the table in front of him, and glares a challenge at the three other men in the game.

"I want to outlast Castro," he proclaims, "so I can return to Cuba before I die."

Crucial vote

This year in particular, the Cuban American community is galvanized by politics.

A presidential election campaign is underway and that means candidates appealing to the crucial Cuban vote in Florida.

Dario Moreno, a political scientist at Florida International University in Miami, says in effect Cubans determine the outcome of the election.

It's an accident of history," says Moreno, "but Cuban exiles settled in Florida, a place where the Democrats and the Republicans are more or less evenly matched.

"That gives the community huge political heft and it uses that to get what it wants - tougher anti-Castro policies."

In the 2000 presidential election, Moreno says, Cubans voted overwhelmingly for George Bush and negated the support for Al Gore among Florida's traditional Democrat voters - blacks, working class people and young urbanites.

"They were angry over the Elian Gonzalez affair," he explains, referring to the case of the 12-year old Cuban boy who was sent back to his father in Cuba by the Clinton administration against the wishes of Miami's exile community.

Bush has had three years to crack down on Castro and he's only starting to do that now that he wants our votes
Joe Garcia, Cuba American National Foundation

This year, says Joe Garcia of the Cuban American National Foundation, there is no such incident threatening the Democratic Party.

"John Kerry's record on Cuba is pretty bad," says Garcia, "but he's the challenger.

"He can change when he gets into office.

"Bush has had three years to crack down on Castro and he's only starting to do that now that he wants our votes.

"Well, a lot of people aren't yet convinced by that."

Anti-Castro measures

Bush's political advisor, Karl Rove, visited Miami in March and promised Cuban Americans a host of measures against the Castro regime, including tougher penalties for trade with Cuba, a crackdown on American allies who are friendly to Havana, and fewer flights to the island.

John Kerry has yet to speak directly to Florida Cubans, but he has made speeches critical of Fidel Castro and is promising similar measures to those Karl Rove spoke about.

Elian Gonzalez
The US and Cuba battled for custody of Elian Gonzalez

"They're trying to out-Cuban each other," jokes Miami Herald columnist Jim Defede of the two candidates.

"The parties know that just a 10% swing in the Cuban vote could mean victory.

"Cubans usually vote Republican but if enough of them switch it could tip the whole election result.

"So you get anti-Communist rhetoric as if the Cold War were still on."

Hatred

The battle for political hearts and minds is raging on the airwaves as well.

On Radio Mambi, Miami's oldest Cuban exile station, talk show host Ninoska Perez Castellon fields calls from listeners whose hatred for the Castro government is as visceral and real as the day they left their homeland.

"These people are not natural Democrat voters," says Perez-Castellon, herself a committed Republican. "That's why I think Bush will win their support."

But the real enemy is apathy. If enough people think neither candidate is tough enough on Cuba, they'll stay home on election day.

That will be a disaster.

That seems the least likely outcome in November, as America's most politically influential ethnic groups basks in the glow of election year attention.


SEE ALSO:
Senate votes to end Cuba ban
24 Oct 03  |  Americas


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