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Top hopefuls take on Cuba

By Mimi Whitefield and Daniel Shoer Roth

Miami Herald

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. 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 America: 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.

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.

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 did not rule out covert operations to overturn the Cuban regime led by the Castro brothers, Raul and Fidel.

"More than 50 years of dictatorship is more than enough," he said to loud applause.

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 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."