Appeasing Castro

Posted: Jul 31, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- It was not just that the Bush administration dispatched 12 Cubans who hijacked a boat to the tender mercies of Fidel Castro. What inflamed pro-Bush Cuban-Americans in south Florida is that the United States negotiated with the communist dictator to impose 10-year prison sentences. This sudden agreement between Washington and Havana could cost George W. Bush a second term.

President Bush's Cuban-American friends consider this a de facto trial, resulting in incarceration by a police state. "This is a very pained community," Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart told me. Sharing the pain of his Cuban constituents and known to be unhappy with the decision is the president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. "I do not think the president was aware of this decision," said Diaz-Balart.

Although there is truly no sign the decision went to the Oval Office, its political sting may be felt there. It is clear that Bush could not have won Florida and the presidency in 2000 without Cuban votes. Since repatriation of the hijackers, Florida Democrats have been busy pointing out betrayal by the White House. If Cuban voters stay home next time, Florida will almost surely be won by Bush's Democratic opponent.

Eleven men and one woman, seeking freedom in America, stole the Cuban boat Gaviota 16 on July 15 but were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard the next day. They were denied automatic entry into the U.S. granted under law, citing an agreement with Castro made by President Bill Clinton. The issue went to a U.S. interagency committee, where Justice and State Department career bureaucrats insisted the refugees be returned to Castro.

The three Cuban-Americans from south Florida in Congress -- Lincoln Diaz-Balart, his brother, Mario, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen -- pleaded to send the hijackers elsewhere, perhaps Guantanamo. Instead, the bureaucrats bargained with the Cuban dictator. Once Castro agreed not to execute the refugees as he had U.S.-bound hijackers in April, U.S. negotiators eagerly accepted 10-year prison sentences. The freedom-seekers were sent back July 21.

Desire to achieve accord with Castro has not borne fruit. Starting July 6, U.S. broadcasts to Iran that are critical of the mullahs were illegally jammed from Cuba. Why has the U.S. government not protested? The CIA has informed the White House that the jamming originated at the Iranian embassy in Havana. It defies belief that this could have been done without concurrence and cooperation by Cuba's government.

Repatriation of the hijackers fits a pattern. In federal court in Key West, Fla., July 10, a Cuban accused of skyjacking was denied permission to testify that he feared for his life if he surrendered control of the plane to Castro's agents. President Bush has waived the rights of Americans to sue foreign speculators who profit from stolen American properties in Cuba. The Justice Department never has sought indictments of Cuban Air Force pilots who shot down small civilian aircraft in international air space.

President Bush has been prevented from getting his choices in control of Cuban policy. Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd has been relentless in blocking confirmation of Bush's own assistant secretary of state for Latin America. Without much effort made by the White House, Bush gave up on Otto Reich, former ambassador to Venezuela, who was instead named a presidential adviser. Roger Noriega, ambassador to the Organization of American States, was finally confirmed by the Senate Tuesday night after a four-month wait.

If Fidel Castro was a fixation for John F. Kennedy, he seems off the screen for George W. Bush. While repatriation to Cuban prisons caused a furor in south Florida, it hardly made a ripple in Washington. My check of Bush policy and political advisers indicated neither awareness of nor interest in what happened.

Lincoln Diaz-Balart refers to the Cubans as the base of Hispanic support for the president and the Republican Party. If this is the treatment given the only minority group that supports the GOP, he wonders what message will be sent other minority groups wooed by Republicans. "When the base is ignored," the congressman said, "there is a problem." More than ignored, the Cubans are simply disrespected, and that is the painful message in Miami.