By Jeff Franks and Rosa Tania Valdes
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban-Americans in Florida have voted solidly Republican for years, but 90 miles away many Cubans in the home country hope this election year is different. They are closely watching the U.S. presidential campaign and, weary of the Bush administration's hard-line Cuba policy, proving to be a receptive audience for Democrat Barack Obama's promise of change.
His vows to ease the 46-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and his openness to dialogue with the Cuban government have sparked hope for better relations with the United States and improved lives for average Cubans. In conversations in the streets, business meetings and social gatherings, many Cubans ask about the U.S. election, then most say they support the Democrats' presumptive presidential nominee over Republican rival John McCain. "I go for Obama," said Manuel Echevarria, 55, a hospital supervisor. "Obama wants to look for a way to have relations, and that would be good for Cuba. To have a bit of hope is what we Cubans want."
"Obama is a totally different vision," said law student Hugo Hernandez. "First, it would be the first time an African-American gets into power and second, the world needs change." Former leader Fidel Castro himself weighed in with a few kind words for Obama, saying in a newspaper column he was "doubtless, from the social and human points of view, the most progressive candidate for the U.S. presidency." But he also blasted Obama for criticizing Cuba's government on human rights and recognized that "were I to defend him, I would do his adversaries an enormous favor."
Cuba expert Dan Erikson at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington said Obama's support on the island is part of a global backlash against President George W. Bush. "Most politically aware Cubans favor Barack Obama over John McCain, but that position is hardly unique to Cuba, as most countries around the world are eager to see a Democrat back in the White House due to profound fatigue with George Bush." Beyond the Bush factor, Cubans like Obama because he has vowed to lift restrictions on family visits and remittances from Cuban exiles in the United States put in place by Bush to toughen the embargo. In May, Obama said in Miami he would keep the embargo to maintain pressure for democratic reforms, but that he also was open to talks with the Cuban government without preconditions. Cuban President Raul Castro, who the National Assembly elected in February to succeed elder brother Fidel, has said he would be willing to meet with U.S. officials.
McCain, also speaking in Miami last month, said he would maintain the embargo as is and ridiculed Obama for his offer to talk to the Cubans. Most Cubans see McCain as an extension of Bush, and for some government opponents that is a plus. "I am, before everything, a Republican, and for me it would be proud that the Republicans return to power because we will have strong pressure against Cuba," dissident Orlando Fundora said. "If the Democrats win, it's going to favor the government of Castro."
But the opinion of housewife Raiza Martinez, 42, was more prevalent. "We were saying among friends recently that if McCain wins, we're going to see the same or worse, and I said if he's crazier than Bush, then we're going to be very bad." She was not optimistic that her Cuban brethren across the Florida Straits would go for Obama.
"To be president of the United States you have to respond to the interests of the people there in Miami," she said. "I think we're going to continue just the same."
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)