McCain, Wooing Florida, Hits Obama on Cuba Policy
Corrected 5:00 p.m.
By Juliet Eilperin
MIAMI -- Using a Cuban folklorico band as a warm-up act, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) highlighted his opposition to the Cuban government this morning and questioned Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) willingness to talk to its current president, Raul Castro.
Vowing, "as president, I will not passively await the day when the Cuban people enjoy the blessings of freedom and democracy," McCain said he would keep the U.S. embargo in place until the regime's leaders agreed "to release all political prisoners unconditionally, to legalize all political parties, labor unions and free media, and to schedule internationally monitored elections. ... Make no mistake Cuba is destined to be free. Cuba is destined to be free."
The presumptive GOP nominee also sought to differentiate his Cuba policy as much as possible from Obama's, quoting an answer Obama gave in a questionnaire a few years ago when he backed lifting the embargo. At the time, Obama wrote, "I believe that normalization of relations with Cuba would help the oppressed and poverty-stricken Cuban people while setting the stage for a more democratic government once Castro inevitably leaves the scene." Noting wryly that his opponent's approach represented "an interesting perspective on Cuba," McCain drew chuckles from the crowd.
While Obama now says he wants to ease the embargo instead of lifting it altogether, McCain used his speech as an opportunity to blast Obama's vow to meet Raul Castro and other hostile foreign leaders without conditions: simply mentioning the Democrat's position inspired boos from several members of the audience.
"These steps would send the worst possible signal to Cuba's dictators -- there is no need to undertake fundamental reforms, they can simply wait for a unilateral change in U.S. policy," McCain said. "I believe we should give hope to the Cuban people, not to the Castro regime. My administration will press the Cuban government. The embargo must stay in place until these basic elements of democratic society are met."
When asked whether he would support prosecuting Raul and his brother Fidel, Cuba's longtime leader, for killing civilians who had fled to sea in order to escape political repression, McCain answered simply, "Yes." A moment later, he clarified his remarks by saying if elected he would order his attorney general "to conduct a full and complete investigation" into whether unarmed Cuban civilians were "killed without provocation, apparently under orders of the government," while at sea.
McCain's words sparked an enthusiastic response from the several hundred Latinos in the crowd, the vast majority of whom were Cuban Republicans. Dotty Vazquez, a local GOP activist who campaigned on behalf of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) during the primary ("I did a lot of phone banks, I'm great at it," she said), said the Cuban community in South Florida is now united behind the Arizona senator.
"They don't like Obama because of his ideals," she said. "It's not because of his color -- the Cuban people are not racist -- it's his liberalism and the way talks, everything, we don't like."
Vazquez did suggest, however, that Obama had Muslim sympathies. "Where is he getting all the money?" she asked. "He's going right now to Tampa and Hollywood, the biggest Islamic populations are there."
Maria Castellon, a housewife who emigrated from Cuba to the U.S. in 1971 as a teenager, said she trusted McCain to take a hard line against both Castro brothers. "We want to have someone who will be strong with Castro," she said. "We don't want any deal with Castro. He has all our family and the Cuban people as a hostage."
One female questioner even equated Obama with Fidel Castro, saying that when she watches America's youth look at the Democratic senator adoringly during this campaign, "I see the Cuban youth, fifty years ago, fascinated by empty words by someone not questioned at the time."
Replying to the questioner, McCain mocked Obama for being naÃ¯ve in his willingness to meet with Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"What are they going to talk about, the destruction of Israel?" he said. "Roosevelt didn't talk with Hitler.... It's dangerous to America's national security when you sit down and give respect to countries that are committed to the destruction of America, or the destruction of" America's allies.
Democrats, including Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.) questioned McCain's fierce opposition to the U.S. embargo against Cuba, saying the GOP senator used to have a more flexible position.
"John McCain needs to explain why continuing to do exactly what George Bush has done will somehow produce a different result. The Senator McCain I used to know was open to negotiations with Cuba to lift the embargo, but now he's taking a hard line position, embracing a policy that has failed the Cuban people and the American people alike for fifty years," Dodd said in a statement. "Instead of four more years of George Bush's policy, Barack Obama will help bring liberty to Cuba through direct diplomacy and change that allows for unlimited family visitation and remittances to the island. It's time to reject a Bush-McCain approach that has isolated us in our own hemisphere, so that we can have renewed American leadership under Barack Obama."
During both his speech and the question-and-answer period that followed, McCain took the opportunity to hit several conservative hot-button issues. After quoting the Constitution's preamble, he said the idea of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness ... means the life of the unborn as well as the life" of Americans who are already born.
He also attacked the Democrats -- including Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) -- for opposing a free trade agreement with Columbia, saying they wished "to retreat behind protectionist walls and undermine a key hemispheric ally." He said he would press to pass it as president.
While McCain largely towed the GOP party line during his Miami visit, he challenged some members of the crowd when a woman asked whether he would work to free the prisoners held at Guantanamo. The audience booed the questioner: McCain instructed them to be polite and said he would transfer those prisoners to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and would push for a speedier resolution of those cases.
However McCain emphasized they would not get all the same privileges as U.S. civilian prisoners, and he sparked another round of applause by saying, "Some of these people are some of the most evil people who have ever existed, and should never see the light of day."
Toward the end of his appearance, several members emphasized McCain would reap political rewards in the fall for taking such a confrontational stance against the current Cuban regime. Ninoska Perez Castellon, a commentator for an anti-Castro radio station Radio Mambi, informed him that in light of that policy, "For that, believe me, Florida will be yours."
In response, McCain couldn't resist making a joke at the expense of the man who introduced him, Perez Castellon's husband Roberto Martin Perez, who spent 28 years in Cuba's prisons. Earlier in the day McCain had called the former prisoner "a true American hero," but now he mocked him as a way of complimenting his wife.
"Thank you," McCain told Perez Castellon. "You're very beautiful, and you clearly married beneath yourself."
This item originally reported incorrectly that Ninoska Perez Castellon and Roberto Martin Perez were divorced. In fact, they remain married.
Posted at 12:30 PM ET on May 20, 2008
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