Cu john Kerry on Cuba

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CU John Kerry on Cuba

May 5, 2004

Hispanic Business - John Kerry reiterated his support Wednesday for easing travel restrictions to Cuba, a stance that puts him sharply at odds with President Bush -- who is expected today to embrace calls for even more controls. Kerry's remarks, made in his first national Hispanic TV interview, came as he faces criticism for what some Democrats say is a dearth of Hispanics and other minorities in his campaign's inner circle and a lackluster effort to woo Hispanics, a key voting bloc in several battleground states, including Florida. But softening the travel ban to Cuba could fare poorly with Cuban Americans, who have called for even greater barriers against Cuban leader Fidel Castro. In the interview, taped in California where Kerry marked the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo by rapping Bush's education policies at a mostly Hispanic high school, Univisión network anchor Jorge Ramos said Kerry supports the economic embargo against Castro, but backs increased travel as a means of hastening democracy.

A transcript of the remarks was not available late Wednesday, but Kerry campaign officials said the Massachusetts senator has backed more travel to Cuba in the past. In April, during an appearance on Meet the Press, Kerry repeated his support for the embargo, but signaled he'd be interested in other strategies, including opening up travel. "I wouldn't just give something for nothing, but I would begin to encourage travel," he told interviewer Tim Russert. "I've suggested that. I think that's appropriate." A decade ago, Kerry, who was an influential force behind the decision to lift the trade embargo against Vietnam, pushed to ease travel restrictions in Cuba. The Senate that year approved a Kerry-sponsored amendment that urged then-President Clinton not to restrict travel related to informational, educational, religious or humanitarian matters, or for performances and exhibitions. "Cultural exchanges are among the most valuable tools of democracy and freedom," Kerry said at the time. And last September in Miami, Kerry defended his past support for easing restrictions on travel and humanitarian aid, saying: "These are things that help undermine the isolation that in my judgment helps Castro."

Kerry has come under attack from the GOP for shifting stances on the embargo on Cuba, but asked Wednesday by Univisión whether he supported the economic stranglehold, Kerry replied: "I do."

He also repeated his criticism of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who he said is "fast on the road to being" a dictator.  "Democracy is at risk," he said. Kerry has accused Bush of failing to promote democratic reforms in Venezuela, a criticism strategists say is intended to erode the president's standing among Cuban-American voters in Florida, who view Chávez as a Castro ally. The interview comes as President Bush today is to endorse some of the findings of a six-month review aimed at tightening the economic grip on Castro. The report -- which calls for limiting travel to the island by Cuban Americans -- follows months of debate among exile leaders, some of whom have complained that Bush has failed to deliver on promises to crack down on Castro. The Kerry campaign hopes to exploit that divide, while a collection of independent Democratic political committees has launched voter registration drives and a Spanish-language advertising campaign aimed at Hispanics.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is Hispanic, campaigned Tuesday in Albuquerque with Kerry, and said the criticism that Kerry isn't doing enough to court Hispanics is premature. Richardson said bKerry told him Tuesday that he will soon air Spanish-language TV ads. Exile groups said Wednesday that Kerry can't just criticize Bush on Cuba -- he needs to come up with his own plan. "We've been critical of the Bush administration when it was required, but we are certainly aware they have a policy on Cuba," said Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation. "We are anxiously awaiting for the Democrats to show us where they are." Kerry spokesman Mark Kornblau said the nascent campaign is just now beginning to roll out its effort. Kerry told Univisión that he's working on his Spanish. As Ramos laughed, Kerry joked at his shaky Spanish skills: "Quiero una cerveza, por favor" -- I want a beer, please.

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