By KIRSTEN B. MITCHELL
WASHINGTON | Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, 46 years removed from Sagua la Grande, a port city on Cuba's northern coast, remains an adamant supporter of the Bush administration's hard-nosed policy toward his homeland.
Until Cuba begins to erase repression of the country's 11 million people, U.S. travel and export sanctions should remain, Martinez and many Cuban exiles firmly believe.
"The debate about Cuba should not be about the embargo," Martinez said in a recent interview. "It's not a policy in and of itself. A change in the government is the ultimate goal."
While support for the embargo remains strong among the nearly 1 million Cuban Americans in Florida, home to the largest Cuban community in the U.S., it is not monolithic, polls show. That could mean the senator's future relevance on the issue depends on how well he listens and responds to various constituencies, say some Cuba observers.
More than half of Cuban Americans - 57.5 percent - polled in March 2007 in Miami-Dade County expressed strong support for continuing the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba, in place since 1962. Fewer than 24 percent of those polled think it has worked well.
At the same time, about 65 percent of the 1,000 randomly selected Cuban-Americans polled said they would support a U.S. dialogue with the Cuban government. The survey, the eighth since 1991 conducted by the Institute for Public Opinion Research and the Cuban Research Institute of Florida International University, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
Also in Martinez's constituent mix are companies eyeing future business in Cuba, interest that ebbs and flows with news from the island nation, said John Kavulich, senior policy adviser to the U.S-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. The group provides U.S. businesses with information about Cuba and takes no position on U.S.-Cuba relations.
"There certainly is a level of interest (in Cuba) by businesses in Florida that far exceeds the level of interest by companies in other states," said Kavulich. He noted that some of the interest is based on "romanticism about a marketplace that no longer exists" - a 1950s capitalistic Cuba.
The divergent views may make it more difficult for Martinez, a Republican, to maintain a hard-line stance on Cuba, said Robert Muse, a Washington lawyer with expertise in U.S. laws relating to Cuba.
"To remain relevant in these debates, Mel Martinez would have to factor in many different constituencies," Muse said. "His future relevance will be dependent on the degree to which he recognizes these various constituencies and the degree to which he tries to accommodate them."
Martinez, elected in 2004 after three years as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said that so far in his Senate term, he has not had to balance competing interests on Cuba.
"I hear very little from people who are chomping at the bit to do business in Cuba," said Martinez, who was mayor of Orange County and one of eight Florida chairmen of George W. Bush's 2000 campaign before joining the Bush administration as secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Melquiades Rafael Martinez came to the U.S. in 1962 at the age of 15 as part of Operation Peter Pan, a Catholic Church initiative that brought 14,000 Cuban children to the U.S. Martinez's parents joined him four years later.
More than four decades later, Martinez thinks the Bush administration's 2004 tightening of rules governing travel and exports to Cuba has worked well. Those rules include restricting family visits to Cuba to once every three years; aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews are excluded. Remittances to Cuba are also limited to $300 a quarter.
FEW TRADE EXCEPTIONS
With the exception of some food and agricultural exports to Cuba allowed under a 2000 trade sanctions law, U.S. companies are barred from trade with Cuba.
Martinez succeeded in convincing Congress in September to fully fund the Bush administration's request for $45.7 million for Cuba democracy programs and $33.7 million for Miami-based Radio and TV Marti to transmit Spanish broadcasts to Cuba.
In this Congress, Martinez has introduced two bills dealing with Cuba. One would bar executives of foreign oil companies that have invested more than $1 million in Cuba from entering the U.S. Cuba has signed agreements with seven foreign oil companies for exploration of offshore oil and gas. The plans have been put off until 2009, Reuters reported Thursday, citing a report in Cuba's state-run media.
In March, Martinez, along with Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, introduced legislation to award a Congressional Gold Medal to Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, a Cuban dissident who is serving a 25-year prison sentence for advocating democracy and human rights. President Bush recognized Biscet with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November.
Martinez has not done more on Cuba because of divergent views of U.S.-Cuba policy and because he defeated Democrat Betty Castor by a narrow margin in 2004, said Marifeli Perez-Stable, vice president of democratic governance for the Inter-American Dialogue, a bipartisan group promoting talks between U.S. and Latin America.
"He doesn't have the political elbow room to do anything" other than what he's done, she said.
MARTINEZ: CHANGE ISN'T ENOUGH
Martinez, who called Cuban President's Raul Castro's recent reforms "cosmetic," said that repression "is as strong as it's ever been." Castro became president in February, ending brother Fidel Castro's 49-year reign.
Among the more important reforms Raul Castro has made are loosening government control of food production, raising the prices it pays farmers for some commodities and allowing long-time tenants of government housing to obtain property titles and pass them along to heirs, said Martinez.
Other changes that received worldwide attention include allowing Cubans to buy cell phones, DVD players and other electronic goods - out of reach for many in Cuba where the monthly average salary is $19.
"My first sense is that they are changes that are being made out of necessity as a result of huge discontent. The Cuban government is being forced to do some things to placate (Cubans)," Martinez said.
Asked if he would consider using a hold, a tool available to all U.S. senators to block legislation they oppose, on any Cuban legislation Martinez said: "I think as a senator I have a range of tools that (I) can use."
Martinez, in a Senate floor speech in October, reflected on whether he will ever return to his homeland.
"I will go back the day I can stand in the part of my little town where I grew up in Sagua la Grande, Cuba, and stand there and freely express my thoughts or the day I can pick up a book and read it freely," Martinez said. "Those are the times and those are the conditions under which the Cuban people will really begin to taste freedom."