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Orlando Sentinel

Bush Pays Lip Service To Hispanics

By Myriam Marquez

MAY 23, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

By political design and out of pragmatic necessity, President George W. Bush is making inroads into the Hispanic community, talking up issues important to Cubans, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans -- the nation's three largest Latino voting blocs.

The frustration for poll-watching Democrats is that, for all the president's big talk recently -- tough on "tyrant" Fidel, warm and fuzzy on Fox -- the Bush administration has made no sweeping changes, no bold moves. Just a lot of disjointed baby steps.

And in the case of courting Puerto Rican voters, Bush has offered that predominantly Democratic voting group nothing of substance at all. The flap over U.S. military exercises in Vieques continues, even as Bush has pledged no more exercises after 2003.

Meanwhile, in Jeb Country, the president placates his brother's strongest supporters, Cuban-American voters who also turned out in force to support W. in 2000. Bush missed an opportunity Monday in Miami, when he unveiled his "new" Cuba policy, to call Fidel Castro's bluff and take a bold stand. For four decades, Castro has used the embargo to blame the United States for his failed, state-controlled economic policies and his communist regime's military buildup, which serves to quash internal dissent in the name of battling the "Yankee imperialists."

Bush would have shown spunk had he called for opening travel to Cuba. He could have offered a creative caveat -- allow a trial period of six months. That would have showed he's willing to think outside the box of exile politics but also won't fall into line with the greedy agricultural and business interests, backed by several Republican members of Congress, that would love to sell grains and machinery to Cuba backed by U.S. taxpayer-financed credit.

Send planeloads of church groups, union workers and CEOs. Use the millions of dollars now wasted on TV Marti -- its programming lost in space without an audience because of the Cuban government's jamming -- to advertise instead the homes that rent rooms to tourists throughout the island. Push the people-to-people contracts.

After six months, if Castro has not budged on allowing Cubans to vote on the Varela Project referendum, which proposes democratic reforms such as multiparty elections, then the travel ban would be re-imposed. And if Castro rejected the offer from the very beginning -- as I believe he would -- it would expose his true motivations in preserving the status quo. Instead, Bush offered the same old embargo policy dressed up as "new and improved," letting Castro off the hook.

For many Mexican-Americans, immigration remains a critical issue, yet Bush has shied away from any bold moves on that front, too. He had wanted to liberalize immigration policy to help illegal immigrants here gain legal status while also helping agriculture, meat-packing and other industries. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, though, the Bush administration tabled that proposal. Another opportunity to lead lost.

Nevertheless, Bush is making huge inroads among Hispanic voters, as a new national survey by Bendixen & Associates shows. Bush got one-third of the Latino vote in 2000, but if the election were held now, it likely would be a draw between Bush and Al Gore, the Wall Street Journal reported. The war on terrorism, Bush's push for faith-based initiatives and his attempts to improve relations with Latin America all have served Bush well.

In his mangled Spanish, W. pays lip service to Hispanic constituencies, hugs a kid here or there and talks of opportunity. Democrats have yet to counter the Bush charm effectively, despite its obvious shortcomings. They need to wake up and smell the cafecito.

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