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Anti-Castro Policy Can Cut Both Ways

U.S. finds it increasingly difficult to punish the regime without hurting Cuban Americans.

May 18, 2003|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Fidel Castro's jailing of dissidents has driven U.S.-Cuban relations to their lowest point in years and sent Washington scrambling to find ways to punish the dictator's regime.

But the White House's deliberations have been made amid pleas from newly arrived Cuban Americans: If you're going after Castro, don't hurt our relatives on the island in the process.

Though some Cuban Americans have been urging President Bush to crack down on U.S. travel and remittances to the island, many recent arrivals oppose it. And American farm interests are arguing against proposals to cut off commercial food sales to Cuba, which totaled nearly $150 million last year.

The president has heard them. And when he unveils a new policy toward Cuba on Tuesday, he is likely to stick to milder measures, such as efforts to aid Cuban dissidents and build an international coalition to exert pressure on the regime, according to some people close to the process.

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Ramifications for Bush

The White House knows that tough penalties would further divide the already fractured Cuban American community and could even cost Bush reelection votes in the key state of Florida.

The administration's predicament reflects a growing dilemma for U.S. officials: As the two countries grow closer through steady Cuban immigration to the U.S., it is becoming harder and harder to punish the Castro government without hurting Cuban American families as well.

In trying to bring democracy to Cuba, the United States "has to distinguish between the regime and the 11 million people who suffer under it," said Dennis K. Hays of the Cuban American National Foundation, a group that supports the long-standing U.S. embargo on Cuba but opposes a crackdown on Cuban American travel and remittances.

The administration has been looking to step up pressure on Cuba since March, when Castro, fearing that he was losing control over pro-democracy groups, rounded up 75 dissidents and jailed them for terms of up to 28 years. The crackdown, the toughest political repression in decades, was followed by the firing-squad executions of three Cubans who hijacked a ferry in an attempt to flee to Florida.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said last month that the U.S. government was "reviewing all of our policies and our approach to Cuba." On Tuesday, the State Department said 14 Cuban diplomats posted in the United States were being expelled for spying, one of the largest such expulsions since Castro assumed control in 1959.

Some longtime Cuban American activists have been urging the Bush administration to halt charter flights and remittances to the island because the cash they bring helps sustain the impoverished regime.

Cuban Americans are permitted to send $1,200 apiece to family members each year. Remittances are Cuba's largest source of foreign exchange, estimated to total between $800 million and $1 billion a year.

Cuban Americans also are allowed one flight home from the U.S. each year, and there are about three dozen weekly charter flights to the island. But the rule is not carefully enforced, and experts say many Cuban Americans travel to Cuba several times a year.

One of the strongest voices in favor of halting the flights and the remittances has been the Cuban Liberty Council, a staunch pro-embargo group whose members include many Cuban Americans whose families left the island at the time of the 1959 revolution.

Council representatives have met on the issue with key administration officials, including Otto J. Reich, the Cuban-born diplomat who is now White House special envoy for Latin America.

But, significantly, the council's view is not shared by the Cuban American National Foundation, a longtime pro-embargo group from which the council split in 2001.

Hays, a former U.S. diplomat, said the U.S. should not stifle these family contacts because they build pressure for democracy and change within Cuba.

"It's my belief that Castro wants us to cut off remittances and family travel," he said. "That's what fuels the growth of the independence movement inside Cuba."

The idea of interrupting such contacts has become more politically problematic as the number of recent arrivals from Cuba has grown. About half of the foreign-born Cuban Americans living in the Miami area, for example, began arriving in 1980.

The new arrivals are likely to be younger and poorer than those who came earlier, many of whom were from wealthy families in Cuba. The later arrivals are more likely to be sending money to family members in Cuba and more inclined to want to ease up on the 4-decade-old ban on travel and trade, experts say.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), one of the leading congressional advocates of lifting the embargo, said that if the administration clamped down on travel and trade "it would expose the widening divisions in South Florida" on the embargo issue.

"Most people there are on our side," said Flake, who is part of a congressional group that is pushing a bill to lift the embargo.

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Steps May Be Ineffective

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