GOP eyes swing state Florida with attack on Castro government visas

In a bid to gain traction with Latinos in the crucial swing state of Florida, Republicans are tearing into the Obama administration’s recent approval of visas for Cuban government officials.

Following several days of criticism from Cuban-Americans on both sides of the aisle, the Republican National Committee (RNC) weighed in Tuesday by organizing a press call with Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) aimed squarely at the Florida electorate. During the call, Diaz-Balart expressed his “deep outrage” over the visa flap.

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“It is reprehensible, unacceptable and it is greatly irresponsible of the administration to allow these high-level Communist Party regime officials to come into the United States on these ... pro-regime public-relations tours,” Diaz-Balart said. “This is a time when repression has been increased by the regime, just in the past couple of years.”

By targeting Cuban-Americans, an important voting bloc in a state that could decide the next president, Republicans hope to hurt Obama’s momentum heading into the November election.

The president had the support of 67 percent of Latino voters in a Pew Research Center poll last month, while presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s tough stance on immigration in the primary race likely won’t help him with Latinos in the general election. Romney did win Florida’s GOP primary, and the state’s Cuban-American senator, Marco Rubio, is considered a top vice presidential contender.

Obama won more than two-thirds of the Latino vote in 2008, including 57 percent in Florida — a state where Latinos have traditionally voted for the Republican presidential candidate (George W. Bush won 56 percent of the Latino vote in Florida in 2004). 

Cuban-Americans, however, are a different matter. 

Obama carried only 47 percent of them in 2008, according to exit polls. And they make up the biggest single Latino group among Republican voters at a time of shifting demographics: Latinos made up 14 percent of GOP primary voters in 2012, according to the RNC, versus 12 percent in 2008.

“Whether it’s the economy or the issue of Cuba, you see Cubans — and all Latinos — aligning with the Republican Party,” said an RNC official who pointed out that Republican Gov. Rick Scott won more than half the Latino vote in 2010.

Researchers at Florida International University paint a subtler picture, however.

More than 60 percent of Cuban-Americans from Miami-Dade County are in favor of allowing unrestricted travel to Cuba for all Americans, according to 2011 results of a poll conducted regularly since 1991, while more than 70 percent favor re-establishing diplomatic relations with the island. A majority — 53 percent — want to retain the embargo, however, even though an overwhelming majority believe it hasn’t worked very well, or not at all.

Regardless, last week’s revelation that the State Department had recently granted visas to three high-level officials — Foreign Affairs Ministry official Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, National Assembly member Eusebio Leal and Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela Castro — did not go over well, forcing congressional Democrats to distance themselves from the decision.

Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) joined the three Republican Cuban-Americans in the House in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to “exercise better judgment when reviewing entry requests from representatives of enemy states in the future.” And Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) called Mariela Castro “a vociferous advocate of the regime and opponent of democracy who has defended the regime’s brutal repression of democracy activists.”

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who has disagreed with Obama before on Cuban issues, noted she thought such visa requests should not be granted.

But she focused her criticism on Mariela Castro's earlier visits under the Bush administration, telling the Miami Herald: "The Bush Administration set a bad precedent by granting Mariela Castro a waiver in 2001 and 2002, as I believe that such visa requests should not be accepted because of the ongoing human rights abuses in Cuba. While I respect my colleagues, it's important to note they did not criticize President George W. Bush for granting Ms. Castro a waiver in 2002. Politics has no place when we are standing up for human rights."

Romney released a statement Tuesday night reiterating his criticism of the administration for approving the visa.

“We shouldn’t be extending an open hand to a regime engaged in the systematic and flagrant denial of basic human rights. While the Cuban regime engages in a fierce crackdown on dissent and continues to unjustly imprison one of our own citizens, Alan Gross, the Obama administration should not be welcoming the daughter of a dictator. The United States should be standing up for those on the island who are risking their very lives fighting for freedom,” he said.

The Republican attack hasn’t been without glitches, however.

Tuesday’s call was initially supposed to feature Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.), who is facing an ethics investigation on allegations that he illegally lived off campaign contributions when he was a state lawmaker. Rivera didn’t make it for the call, and the RNC blamed a scheduling conflict. 

“The fact that the RNC found David Rivera to be a credible source on anything is laughable considering his status as an embattled member of Congress, under investigation by Florida officials for living off his campaign contributions for nearly a decade,” the Democratic National Committee said in a statement. “No wonder he ‘couldn’t make it’ on the conference call.”

And the Florida Democratic Party also pointed out that the George W. Bush administration likewise approved a visa for Mariela Castro in 2002.

“Republicans need to stop playing with people’s emotions when it comes to Cuba,” said Obama Hispanic issues adviser Freddy Balsera. “While they grab headlines criticizing the president and distorting his record on Cuba, they avoid saying that Mariela Castro actually received a visa to visit the U.S. in 2002 under the Bush administration. In fact, the top State Department official in charge of Latin America at the time was a Cuban American. Where was their criticism then? Nowhere, because ultimately this is all about politics for them.”