Posted on Saturday, August 25, 2007
By BRENDAN FARRINGTON
AP Political Writer
MIAMI -- Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama criticized President Bush's Cuba policy to rousing applause on Saturday at the same Little Havana auditorium where Republican Ronald Reagan once campaigned.
"Just 90 miles from here there is a country where justice and freedom are out of reach. That's why my policy toward Cuba will be guided by one word: Liberty," Obama said, adding that freedom in Cuba begins with the release of political prisoners.
He said there are no better ambassadors for change on the communist island than the Cuban Americans who send money to relatives.
"It can help make their families less dependent on Fidel Castro. That's the way to bring about real change in Cuba," Obama said. "It's time we had a president who realized that."
Obama addressed the crowd of more than 1,000 four days after he submitted an opinion piece to The Miami Herald that said restrictions that limit how often Cuban Americans can travel to Cuba to visit family and how much money they can send relatives should be loosened.
The Cuban-exile vote is considered key to winning Florida, and top presidential candidates have generally followed the recommendations of the community's most hard-line and vocal leaders, who support a full embargo against Castro's government.
But many in the large Cuban American community want to be able to visit and help family and support the idea of looser restrictions.
Obama said he wouldn't lift the trade embargo, and said the offer to normalize relations in a post-Castro Cuba would be made after the country opened up to democratic change.
"Until there's justice in Cuba, there's no justice anywhere," Obama said. "We will talk to our enemies as well as our friends and both to our enemies and to our friends, we will tell them the truth and tell them what we stand for."
Across the streets from the auditorium about 35 protesters held signs condemning Obama's stance on lifting travel restriction to Cuba. The group of mostly older Cuban-Americans, one woman in a kerchief and curlers, another carrying a puppet ghost, were mostly members of the extreme and marginal exile group Vigilia Mambisa.
Laura Vianello, a member of the group, said Obama's proposed policies toward Cuba were a huge mistake. She said families have always been able to send humanitarian aid but should not be allowed to visit family on the island more frequently.
"If they stayed there then maybe they were communists," she said of the relatives of Cuban-Americans who remain on the island.
Meanwhile in front of the auditorium, about 20 young Cuban American students waved placards in support of Obama. Among them was Giancarlo Sopo, 24. The Miami native, now a student at Harvard University, said his entire family had come to hear Obama's speech, and it was the first time his grandmother and his parents were considering voting for a Democrat.
"We've been engaged in a failed policy with Cuba for the last 50 years. And we need to change it," he said.
Sopo said he supported Obama because "he has defied conventional wisdom."
Later Saturday, Obama planned an event at the South Beach nightclub Mansion. The party was to kick off a grass roots effort aimed at younger voters.
Hispanic Affairs writer Laura Wides-Munoz contributed to this report.