The two leading candidates in the Republican primary, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, came to Miami on Wednesday to win the support of tens of thousands of Cuban Republican voters by blasting the Castro brothers and outlining their plans for improving U.S-Latin American relations.
Predictably, both candidates' main focus was a hard-line stance toward Cuba and a hope for regime change.
First up was Gingrich, who spoke before about 250 people at Florida International University's Wertheim Performing Arts Center. A much more aggressive policy toward Cuba is needed to bring about a "Cuban spring" and usher in democracy, he said during a morning speech.
Romney chose a much more symbolic setting for his afternoon address on Latin American: The Freedom Tower where thousands of Cuban exiles were processed when they first entered the United States.
Both Romney and Gingrich agreed that they disagree with President Barack Obama on Cuba policy.
"This president does not understand that by helping Castro; he is not helping the people of Cuba; he is hurting them," said Romney to a cheering audience inside the ornate downtown Miami building ."I want to be the American president that's proud to be able to say, 'I was president at the time that we brought freedom back to the people of Cuba.' "
President Barack Obama has lifted many U.S. restrictions on travel to the island and allowed people-to-people exchanges to encourage the free flow of ideas and support civil society. Opponents claim the policy is an economic boon to Cuba.
"I don't think it occurs to a single person in the White House to look south and propose a Cuban spring," said Gingrich at an event sponsored by the FIU College Republicans.
He said Obama was going about Cuban policy "almost exactly the opposite" of what it should be.
As he suggested during Monday night's debate at the University of South Florida, Gingrich pledged to use every "non-military tool'' available against Cuba. He cited the roles played by Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Britain's Margaret Thatcher in the crumbling of the former Soviet Union as inspiration for his Cuba policy. He did not rule out covert operations to overturn the Cuban regime led by the Castro brothers, Rául and Fidel.
"More than 50 years of dictatorship is more than enough," he said to loud applause.
He said he wanted to send "a clear message to the younger generation of Cubans that there will not be a successor to Castro."
Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., the principal author of the Helms-Burton law, which targets foreign companies doing business with Cuba, introduced Gingrich and said the GOP hopeful was instrumental in helping get the law passed. U.S. presidents have traditionally waived a provision of the law that allows U.S. citizens to sue those using their confiscated Cuban properties. Gingrich said there would be no waiver during his presidency.
Romney also lashed out at President Obama's Cuba policy: "He is accommodating and encouraging a policy of oppression and if I'm president of the United States, we will return to Helms Burton and the law and will not give Castro gifts,'' he said.
He knew what his audience wanted to hear and fulfilled their expectations.
"If I'm to become the next president of the U.S., it is my expectation that Fidel Castro will finally be taken off this planet," Romney told them. "We have to be prepared. This is the time, in my opinion, in the next president's first or second term, it is time for us to strive for freedom in Cuba.
"We must not allow another generation to suffer under the hands of oppressive ruler," he said.
Romney was flanked by former Sen. Mel Martinez, former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, Republican Senate hopeful Connie Mack, former Rep. Lincoln Díaz Balart and Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen who introduced him enthusiastically.
In speaking about the rest of Latin America, Gingrich said "very fundamental changes" are needed in U.S. policy toward a region that the United States has long neglected.
"We owe all of Latin America a commitment to prosperity, to the rule of law, to the right of private property, a commitment to transparency and accountability and honest government….," Gingrich said.
He proposed "dramatically strengthening" the U.S. Southern Command, saying he would transfer oversight of Mexico from the Northern Command to the Southern Command, its rightful place. The move, he suggested, would help Mexico win its war with drug cartels.
In brief remarks about Haiti, Gingrich said massive U.S. aid over the years has done little for the Haitian people. They "still live very difficult and painful lives," he said. "I think we need to rethink from the ground up how we approach foreign aid and how we help people," said Gingrich, though he didn't elaborate on how he would change U.S. foreign aid priorities.
Romney said Obama has focused too much attention on Europe and Asia at the expense of Latin America. "How is it that the whole world south of our border, which is growing, receives so little attention from the United States of America?'' asked Romney.
"I recognize we must have a full initiative for economic development and economic collaborations between the U.S. and the nations of Latin America,'' he said.
And Romney said he would have a point person responsible for "our success in Latin America" who would work with U.S. agencies, including the State Department, to coordinate American efforts to "pursue a mission of freedom."
"I will use the power of America to spread freedom in Latin America," he said.