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Lieberman a friend to Cuban-Americans

By DAVID ADAMS

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 9, 2000


MIAMI -- With Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman as his running mate, Democratic presidential hopeful Al Gore may win back alienated Cuban-American voters in South Florida.

Still smarting from the Clinton administration's handling of Elian Gonzalez, hard-line Cuban-American exiles can take heart from Lieberman's impeccable anti-Castro voting record.

In his 12 years in Congress, Lieberman has supported legislation to tighten the U.S. embargo against Cuba, including the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act. He has also consistently backed funding for Radio and TV Marti, controversial government-financed stations that broadcast pro-democracy programming into Cuba.

Lieberman's Cuba connection dates to his 1988 Senate campaign when he challenged incumbent Republican Lowell Weicker, Connecticut's former governor.

Weicker was targeted by Cuban exiles after he met twice with Fidel Castro in Cuba and publicly advocated warming relations with the communist-run island. After one meeting, Weicker returned from Havana with a box of Cuban cigars, a present from Castro.

In a recent interview, Lieberman recalled being introduced that year to the late Jorge Mas Canosa, founder of the Cuban American National Foundation, by supporters within Miami's Jewish community.

"Jorge Mas Canosa and I really just struck it off," Lieberman said. "To me, part of the coming together was natural. I agreed with their position on Castro."

But there was also a financial side to his sympathy for the Cuban cause. His campaign won substantial financial backing from the CANF that helped Lieberman defeat Weicker by just 10,000 votes.

Lieberman has since proved a popular senator, and in 1994 he was re-elected in a landslide.

Cuban-Americans have continued to put their faith -- and money -- in Lieberman's stand on Cuban issues. This year, Floridians have donated more than $100,000 to his Senate re-election campaign, including major donations from the leaders of CANF.

"Joe Lieberman is a great friend of the Cuban cause," said Joe Garcia, CANF's director. "He's never missed one vote on Cuba and he's never failed to be with us."

Lieberman was one of a number of politicians who asked Attorney General Janet Reno to delay Elian Gonzalez' return to Cuba.

In his public comments on Cuba, Lieberman has lately shown some frustration with U.S. policy. He recently said that Castro no longer represented a national security threat to the United States.

"I am not happy with (the embargo) mostly because it hasn't brought about change," he told the Hartford Courant in May. But he added that the embargo remained true to the U.S. principles of opposing dictatorships and human rights abusers.

"I am still not for easing the embargo, unless we first see some actions by Castro," Lieberman said. "I'd like to see him grant more human rights for the people there. He needs to free some political dissidents. He needs to take concrete steps."

Lieberman also conceded that public opinion seems to be changing. "There certainly looks like a shift in opinion, both in Congress and the public. And that is away from the position I have taken."

Despite Lieberman's voting record, it may be too late to sway Cuban-Americans who make up 8 percent of registered Florida voters.

On Tuesday, Cuban radio commentators praised Gore's selection, but urged listeners to vote Republican.

Some Cuban-American Democrats in Miami who favor softening U.S. policy on Cuba were disappointed in the choice of Lieberman. "I think it's very good for the future of American democracy that Mr. Gore picked a minority as his running mate," said Max Lesnik, a Cuban-American commentator in Miami who is Jewish.

"But I don't think he (Lieberman) understands the Cuba issue. Like all politicians, he's in it for the money."

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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