MIAMI - It was nice and cozy while it lasted, but the Bush administration's honeymoon with Cuban-American exiles was never likely to endure.
Cuban exiles are steaming over the White House's failure to deliver on its promises of a beefed-up policy toward Cuba. In particular, they are angry over the recent repatriation of Cuban asylum seekers picked up at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Now Miami's Spanish-language airwaves are buzzing with talk of Republican betrayal. When a group of Cubans was sent back after trying to make it to Miami on a raft crafted from a 1951 Chevy truck, that inspired DJs at popular radio station El Sol 95 to come up with a catchy song accusing President Bush of turning "into a rat, just like Clinton."
The song concludes with a chorus line: "All together, let's scream: Bush is betraying us."
On the one hand, Cuban exiles have reason to gripe. After all, they delivered crucial Republican votes in the November 2000 election (an overwhelming 83 percent of Cuban-American voters backed Bush against Al Gore), as well as Jeb Bush's re-election as governor last year.
The Bush administration has repeatedly promised to do something about Cuba. Last year, President Bush came to Miami on Cuban independence day, May 20, to deliver a passionate speech about Cuban freedom from tyranny.
But the exiles must also accept that it has always been this way. For more than 40 years U.S. administrations have made lots of promises about Cuba, which they seldom fulfill.
If the exiles haven't learned that by now, then they're simply not the political operators they are cracked up to be. Remember how Bill Clinton wooed the exiles as a candidate in 1994 when he was almost down and out and running low on campaign funds? A few magic anti-Castro words at a dinner in Miami, and all of a sudden he was the exiles' best friend. It lasted a while, until a series of political events came along: the 1996 shooting down of two small exile planes over the Straits of Florida, and then the custody battle over rafter boy Elian Gonzalez.
One man who did understand Washington's duplicity was the deceased founder of the powerful Cuban American National Foundation, Jorge Mas Canosa. He made it his business to have political allies in both parties, knowing neither could ever be fully trusted if they enjoyed a lock on the exiles' important voting bloc. It was his way of keeping them honest.
Indeed, it was under Mas Canosa's leadership that the exiles made their greatest gains in Congress - the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act and the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act.
The current exile political leadership is split precisely because one wing - the die-hards - put all their eggs in the Republican basket in disgust with Democrats after the Elian debacle.
Mas Canosa must be turning in his grave. All Bush had to do was name a few exile favorites to semi-important positions in Washington and he had the die-hards cooing with joy in Miami. A Cuban-American colonel, Emilio Gonzalez, was appointed as Cuba adviser to the National Security Council. Otto Reich, an influential Cuban-American lobbyist, was put in charge of Latin American affairs at the State Department. Everything looked like it was going the hard-liners' way.
The die-hards now face a very public challenge from another wing of exile leaders, led by Mas Canosa's son, Jorge Mas Jr., who heads CANF. This group had stayed loyal to Bush - until now - while also maintaining ties to the Democrats.
Last week they published an open letter to President Bush describing their "profound disappointment with current Cuba policy."
The ad carried a cartoon hinting that unless something changed, Bush could no longer count on their votes come the next election.
"We had a very explicit understanding (with the Bush administration) that something would be done," said CANF spokesman Joe Garcia. He reeled off a list of four areas the White House pledged changes: new resources dedicated to improving the signal of Radio and TV Marti, the government-run station beamed at Cuba; increased U.S. funding for dissidents in Cuba; a review of U.S. immigration policy; and criminal charges against those responsible in Cuba for the 1996 shootdown.
But in 21/2 years, exiles have seen no movement on those issues. "People feel very slighted," he said.
The message has already reached Tallahassee, where Gov. Bush last week joined the criticism of his brother's Cuba policy.
"It's just not right," he said, referring to the repatriation of the Cuban asylum seekers, some of whom were known to be anti-Castro dissidents.
But Washington has so far rejected the calls for policy change.
In fact, the newly appointed State Department chief for Latin America, Roger Noriega, was quoted last week as saying any shift in immigration policy for Cubans could invite a massive stampede from the island, as occurred in 1994.
Even so, anyone who ignores the Cuban vote in Miami does so at their peril. Most likely the White House will mollify the exiles with a few well-chosen bones thrown their way. If not, Democratic presidential hopefuls such as Joe Lieberman may suddenly find they have a lot more friends in Miami.