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Growing Number of Exiles Support More Contact with Cuba, Survey Indicates - 2003-03-11


For decades, Cuban exiles in south Florida have staunchly backed the longstanding U.S. economic embargo of Cuba as a means of pressing Havana for democratic reform. But recent surveys of exiles show a shift in attitudes. Growing numbers of exiles say they support at least limited engagement with Cuba, despite the fact that President Fidel Castro remains in power.

Cuban exiles have traditionally been viewed as a monolithic group unified in opposition to any dealings with Cuba that might benefit Fidel Castro.

For years, the Cuban American National Foundation has steadfastly advocated measures to isolate the island both politically and economically in hopes of one day toppling the government in Havana.

But the foundation made headlines earlier this year when its chairman, Jorge Mas Santos, came out in favor of dialogue between exiles and the Castro government. For some, the call for engagement has been viewed as a welcome change; for others, a betrayal.

Mr. Mas Santos says the goal is not to boost the aging Cuban leader's grip on power, but rather to influence his top lieutenants, those who will help determine Cuba's future in the post-Castro era.

"Those are people that you have to engage," said Mr. Mas Santos. "But there always has to be a precept of our vision for the future of Cuba, that the Cuban people have to decide through free and fair elections. We have to give those people an alternative, we have to give them an 'out.' We have to tell them that they are also part of a transition towards democracy."

Last month, two public opinion surveys revealed what appears to be a growing divide within south Florida's Cuban exile community. One poll was conducted by The Miami Herald newspaper, the other by a private firm.

Both surveys showed that solid majorities of exiles who came to the United States in the 1960s continue to back the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba. But among younger exiles, those who fled the island in the 1990s, more than 60 percent support easing travel restrictions and waving limits on the amount of money they can wire to relatives in Cuba. An even larger majority of younger exiles say they support the concept of "forgiveness and reconciliation" as part of a democratic transition in Cuba.

Observers say the apparent split among exiles reflects the fact that more recent arrivals tend to have greater ties to relatives still living on the island. As a result, these younger exiles are less enthusiastic about measures that increase the rift between the United States and Cuba and cut them off from the nation of their birth.

Florida International University Professor Dario Moreno says he welcomes the new voices that are emerging within the exile community. "I think this is an incredibly healthy debate," he said. "This shows the diversity of our community. It shows that we are open to different viewpoints."

But despite evidence of a shift in attitudes among some exiles, resistance remains formidable to anything that might be construed as "caving in" to Fidel Castro. For instance, a group of pro-dialogue exiles recently had to cancel a meeting when the manager of a Miami-area hotel where they were set to gather learned of their agenda and withdrew permission to use the premises.

In addition, three Cuban-American members of Congress, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, remain staunch defenders of the U.S. economic embargo. Lincoln Diaz-Balart says, regardless of what public opinion polls show, exiles continue to elect politicians who support maintaining a hard line against Fidel Castro.

"The people have spoken," he said.

But voting patterns among exiles may also change in the future. Political observers note that it takes years for recent arrivals to gain U.S. citizenship and the right to vote. As younger exiles go through the process, their political clout will likely grow.