WASHINGTON — President Bush on Thursday announced a plan to broaden enforcement of the embargo against Cuba by stopping pleasure boaters from traveling to the Caribbean island 90 miles south of Florida.
The new policy allows U.S. officials, if they believe a boat in U.S. waters may be headed to Cuba, to inspect the vessel, place guards on it and, if necessary, take possession of it.
The action was the latest in a series of efforts the president has made as part of a crackdown, announced in October, on unauthorized travel to Cuba. Under U.S. law, only members of Congress, people traveling for educational or humanitarian purposes, journalists and those with relatives in Cuba are permitted to visit the island.
The issue is of intense importance in the Cuban American community in Florida, where the president has sought voter support after his narrow win in the state in the 2000 election. His brother, Jeb, is governor there.
In announcing the new policy, Bush noted that "the Cuban government has over the course of its 45-year existence repeatedly used violence and the threat of violence to undermine U.S. policy interests."
The new restriction on boat travel to Cuba expands a policy announced by President Clinton in 1996 after Cuban fighter jets shot down two small private planes from an exile group, Brothers to the Rescue. The two planes had been combing the waters off Cuba's northern coast, searching for Cuban rafters trying to reach the United States. Four people, three of them American citizens, were killed.
The Clinton policy gave the Coast Guard authority to decide whether to give permission for boats to leave U.S. waters for Cuban waters. Since then, Cuban Americans taking their boats to Cuba to protest the government have routinely been denied permits out of concern that their activities could provoke international incidents, a State Department official said.
However, between 1996 and 2003, the Coast Guard granted 1,500 permits to other boaters to make the trip, the official said.
"We were very concerned, from a policy perspective, about the image of American boaters going to Cuba in apparent defiance of the embargo," said the official, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used.
The old policy was "incoherent " because, despite the travel restrictions, "the Coast Guard [was] issuing permits to boaters and yachters," the official said.
The long-standing embargo against Cuba -- imposed in the early 1960s after the communist government expropriated American companies and other property on the island -- is intended to punish President Fidel Castro's regime while showing support for the people of Cuba.
Contending that Cuba provided "material and political support to terrorist organizations" in Central America and elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, the new policy gives the Department of Homeland Security further authority to regulate boat travel to the island.
The proclamation issued Thursday says that senior Cuban officials have taken steps to "destabilize" relations with the United States by threatening to abrogate the accord under which Cubans migrate to the United States and to close the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba, and by repeatedly asserting that the United States intended to invade Cuba despite explicit denials by top U.S. officials.