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Obama again stirs up decades-old debate on Cuba

  • Story Highlights
  • Bush administration increased restrictions on travel, money transfers to Cuba
  • Democratic presidential candidate says he would reverse Bush measures
  • Obama's chief rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, opposes any changes now
  • GOP's Mitt Romney says Obama is not strong enough to confront enemies
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By John King
CNN Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As Ronald Reagan might have put it, here we go again.

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Sen. Barack Obama campaigns in Iowa last week.

What to do about Fidel Castro is a question that dates back five decades and 10 U.S. presidencies.

In more recent times, it has become somewhat of a litmus test in presidential politics, dating back to Reagan's heavy emphasis on the Cuban-American vote in the 1980s.

The question has more significance now, perhaps, because of Cuban leader Fidel Castro's failing health.

"Even though it is not the number one issue for the majority of voters in Florida, for a very vocal minority, it is an incredibly passionate issue that has a lot of history," says Washington-based Democratic strategist Maria Cardona.

The debate was stirred Tuesday by an op-ed essay Sen. Barack Obama wrote for the Miami Herald. In it, he called for the lifting of two Bush administration restrictions on Cuban-Americans. Obama wrote that he would grant Cuban-Americans "unrestricted rights to visit family and send remittances to the island."

A leading Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was quick to pounce, saying in a statement "unilateral concessions to a dictatorial regime are counterproductive" and that Obama's position proves the Illinois senator "does not have the strength to confront America's enemies or defend our values."

Current restrictions allow Cuban-Americans to send family members $300 a quarter and limit visits to up to 14 days once every three years.

Among the other Democratic candidates, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson already was on record in favor of changes along the lines outlined by Obama.

Former Sen. John Edwards split the difference; he favors unlimited travel by family members but opposes "raising the limits on sending American dollars back to Cuba at this time."

Sen. Chris Dodd would do more; he favors allowing all Americans unrestricted travel to Cuba.

Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton favors no changes to U.S. policy and said through a spokesman "we cannot talk about changes to U.S. policy" unless and until Castro passes from the scene and a new government demonstrates its intentions.

On the other end of the spectrum, Rep. Dennis Kucinich favors lifting the embargo outright.

Most interested in this debate is a tiny slice of the U.S. electorate. Nationally, Cuban-Americans account for less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. But they are heavily concentrated in the key presidential battleground of Florida, where they constitute 8 percent of the state's electorate. (The winner in Florida was decided by 537 votes in the 2000 presidential election.)

Cuban-Americans are the most reliably Republican of the nation's Latino voters, leading some strategists to wonder why Obama would be interested in inflaming the passions of the Cuba debate.

"Non-Cuban-Hispanic voters do not appreciate a presidential candidate coming down and once again making Cuba the issue. They want to hear about other things," Cardona said.

Others saw a calculated effort by Obama to shift attention away from criticism in Miami's Cuban-American community for his talk of being willing to meet with Castro and leaders of other so-called rogue regimes in his first year in office.

The op-ed piece made no mention of such a pledge. Instead, Obama talked of bilateral talks in a "post-Fidel" Cuba and said his administration would make clear that if such a government would adopt democratic reforms, "the United States is prepared to take steps to normalize relations and ease the embargo that has governed relations between our countries for five decades."

Obama's stirring of this debate continues a theme of taking an unorthodox -- rivals would say inexperienced -- approach to foreign policy issues. It is also an issue that could test how the actions of President Bill Clinton's administration affect the candidacy of his wife.

Her husband made courting Cuban-Americans a priority, and received nearly 40 percent of Miami's Cuban vote in the 1996 presidential election.

But President Clinton's decision to return Elian Gonzalez to Castro's Cuba provoked outrage among Cuban-Americans, and, according to a Florida International University Study, Republican candidates received more than 80 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Florida in the 2000 presidential and the 2002 gubernatorial elections. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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