Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama today laid out his vision for a new direction in U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. He criticized what he said was the failed Bush administration policy in the region and proposed a series of economic initiatives he calls a "new alliance for the Americas."
He also reiterated his call for a new approach to Cuba and took his proposals to the place where the issue is most controversial: Miami.
It's been a big week in Miami for discussions of U.S.-Cuba policy. Earlier in the week, Republican presidential candidate John McCain was there reiterating his support for the current U.S. policy aimed at isolating the island and the regime of Raul Castro.
Today, Barack Obama brought a different perspective. He talked about Cuba, but it was just part of a larger discussion.
Obama charged that over the past eight years, the Bush administration has ignored Latin America, and he said that's allowed Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to expand his influence through the region.
"That is the record — the Bush record in Latin America — that John McCain has chosen to embrace," Obama said. "Sen. McCain doesn't talk about these trends in our hemisphere, because he knows that it's part of the broader Bush-McCain failure to address priorities beyond Iraq."
Obama presented a series of proposals that he said would help the U.S. play a more active role in Latin America.
He said he'd reappoint a special envoy to the Americas, increase aid and economic development investment and work to promote democracy throughout the region. He said, "We face a clear choice in this election. We can continue as a bystander, or we can lead the hemisphere into the 21st century. And when I am president of the United States, we will choose to lead."
Although the talk was about foreign policy, the event in Miami was also very much about domestic politics. Since the days of Ronald Reagan, Cuban-Americans have been a reliable Republican voting bloc in Florida. They helped George W. Bush win-narrowly-in 2000 and again by a wider margin in 2004.
But there are signs that Democrats may have an opening in the Cuban-American community. Democrats recently celebrated when they surpassed Republicans in registering Hispanics in Florida. And polls show that a majority of Cuban-Americans support a change in policy that would loosen restrictions on travel and on sending money to the island.
In his speech in Miami, Obama said there are no better people to promote freedom in Cuba than Cuban-Americans. To thunderous applause, he said, "That's why I will immediately allow unlimited family travel and remittances to the island. It's time to let Cuba- Americans see their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers."
The question in November is whether the popularity of those ideas will translate into support for Democratic candidates.
For the first time in years, the three Republican Cuban-American members of Congress from South Florida are facing serious challenges from Democrats.
Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who has represented Miami in Congress for 22 years, says he's not worried.
"It will be seen again in the election in November," he said "where over 80 percent of the Cuban community will vote for Sen. McCain and the candidates who oppose unilateral concessions."
There was a time when the group that sponsored Obama's talk—the Cuban American National Foundation — was among the hardest of hard-line groups, rejecting anything other than the overthrow of the Castro regime.
But with time, there's a changing of the guard in Miami, and the group has moderated its position. While he didn't endorse Obama, at least on Cuba, chairman Jorge Mas Santos did endorse many of his ideas.