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A longtime ally, Lieberman seeks Cuban-American support in Florida

MIAMI (CNN) -- In the battleground state of Florida, many Democrats feared they have to write off this year's Cuban-American vote, a traditional Republican bloc angered by the Clinton administration's handling of the Elian Gonzalez case.

Sen. Joe Lieberman: "I will not rest until we all do what we can to achieve for the people of that great island the freedom that we treasure in the United States of America."  

But Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman is trying to change that dynamic by touting his record and longtime friendship with the powerful Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). During a recent campaign swing through southern Florida, Lieberman joined Cuban-American community leaders at a CANF-sponsored meeting.

"I will not rest until we all do what we can to achieve for the people of that great island the freedom that we treasure in the United States of America," Lieberman said of communist Cuba.

Ardent opponents of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, the foundation blasted the Clinton administration for its resolve in returning six-year-old Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez to his homeland. Many Cuban-Americans are still bitter over the boy's dramatic seizure from the home of his Miami relatives, and hold Democrats responsible. The timing of the meeting with Lieberman was sensitive and took a long time to work out.

"The concern has always been for the deep feelings that have been aroused in this community because of the Elian Gonzalez situation," said CANF President Francisco Hernandez.

Although Vice President Al Gore broke ranks with the Clinton administration and called for the matter to be solved by the Florida family court system, many felt that the Democratic White House hopeful was pandering for their vote.

But Lieberman has had a long friendship with the foundation and has the strongest record of supporting exile causes of any national candidate. The Connecticut senator consistently voted to tighten the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, and to prevent food and medicine sales to the island. Cuban-American Democrats want his record known.

Miami Beach commissioner Luis Garcia  

"Joe Lieberman is probably the best-kept secret in the Cuban cause," said Luis Garcia, the commissioner of Miami Beach

Cuban Americans make up eight percent of the Florida electorate. They traditionally vote Republican, giving Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush 80 percent of their vote in the 1980s.

But President Clinton won more than 40 percent of the vote in 1996, helping him become the first Democrat to take Florida since Jimmy Carter. But even with Lieberman's record, Cuban-American Democrats admit that a repeat of that performance will be a tough feat.

But some Cuban-American Republicans say it is not too late.

"If they mean what they say about freedom for Cuba and not lifting the embargo, they could have an input," said CANF member Manny Vazquez.

Lieberman has received more than $100,000 in donations from members of CANF throughout his Senate career. But this election cycle, foundation board members have given at least $650,000 to help elect Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush, brother of another foundation ally, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

But even if Gore does win in November, Hernandez says Washington will be listening to Cuban-American concerns.

"I think that Cuban-Americans do not have to be concerned about Cuba policy with Joe Lieberman as vice president of the United States," he said.

Some foundation members are concerned about the mixed message the recent meeting with Lieberman brings to the community. But others say that's exactly the message that should be sent, that Cuban Americans should find allies on both sides of the aisle.



Tuesday, October 24, 2000


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