MIAMI — Senator John McCain appeared before several hundred cheering supporters in Miami at lunchtime today, to make his pitch for South Florida's influential Cuban-American vote.
Billed as a town hall meeting to address U.S. policy in Latin America, McCain offered no new initiatives beyond support for democracy in Cuba and passage of a hotly debated free trade agreement with Colombia currently stalled in Congress.
McCain found himself largely preaching to the converted, apart from one member of the audience, who was roundly booed for asking the candidate a question about what he would do with the prisoners in Guantanamo.
McCain's war record and six years held as a prisoner of North Vietnam's communist regime give him special appeal to Miami Cubans who traditionally vote with the Republican party.
Speaking on Cuba's Independence Day, McCain said he would do his best as president to restore good relations with a democratic government in Cuba. "Make no mistake, Cuba is destined to be free," he said, without going into the details of how this would happen, or how he, as president, would help bring about that day.
"I will not passively await the day" when Cuba is free, McCain added, saying it was "in our national interest" to bring about democratic change in Cuba. McCain did not offer any new ideas for U.S. policy in Cuba, standing behind an economic embargo of nearly five decades, and recent efforts by the Bush administration to tighten it.
McCain promised to increase funding for the Miami-based U.S. government radio and TV broadcasts directed at the island, as well as money for dissidents in Cuba. He also said he would "vigorously prosecute" Cuban officials implicated in the murder of U.S. citizens in the infamous February 1996 shooting down of two civilian planes off the coast of Cuba.
McCain also used the free trade debate to take jabs at Democratic Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for their failure to support a treaty with Colombia, which he said would lift $1-billion in tariffs on U.S. exports to that country. "Delaying approval will not create one more U.S. job," he said.
McCain pointed out that Colombia is Florida's fifth-largest trading partner worth $2.1-billion in exports from the state last year.
Sticking to the example of Colombia, McCain summed up his policy for Latin America saying it was important for the United States to support its allies in the region, and treat them as equals, rather than "little brothers." This was the only way, he said, to prevent other countries in the region from falling under the influence of leftist rulers, such as Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.