BY VANESSA BAUZA AND DIANA MARRERO | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - (KRT) - America Puig does not own a home or expensive clothing and the closest thing she has ever come to a vacation is a weekend road trip across Alligator Alley.
The 52-year-old daycare worker saves every extra penny for something closer to her heart: Sending cash and gifts to her twin sister in Havana, Rita Maria, whom she hasn’t seen in seven years.
Maybe America and her husband, who works two part-time jobs, could afford to visit Disney World were it not for her family back in Cuba. Maybe they wouldn’t be renting an apartment near Miami’s International Airport, where the planes roar overhead day and night. But she quickly dismisses these daydreams while looking at a picture of her sister.
“Her woes are my woes,” America Puig said.
America Puig’s dilemma is shared by hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans who want to see an end to Castro’s communist system but send money that ultimately helps keep Cuba’s ailing economy afloat. Along with the tourism industry, remittances are Cuba’s biggest money-maker.
In a recent poll conducted for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and WTVJ Channel 6 by Florida International University, 54 percent of Cuban-Americans surveyed in Miami-Dade and Broward counties said they send money back to Cuba. According to the survey, the average amount sent per household in 2003 was $387 for an estimated total of about $100 million going to the island annually from South Florida.
In central Havana, Rita Maria Puig lives with her sons, daughter-in-law and granddaughter in the same tidy little apartment where she and her sister grew up. She makes $20 a month at the Ministry of Education and buys used clothing, which she sometimes mends on a pedal-powered Singer sewing machine that is older than she is.
The $50 or $100 remittances that are delivered occasionally by friends of America help Rita Maria buy essentials like soap, detergent and shampoo. And when she buys a bottle of oil she shares a cup or two with a longtime neighbor who doesn’t receive money from abroad.
“Here on my block it is the minority which receives remittances. The remittances undoubtedly help me, but I don’t totally depend on them,” Rita Maria Puig said, adding that she and her two sons pool their salaries to make ends meet.
Ask America Puig what she thinks about remittances in the abstract and she will tell you she is against them. But it’s more complicated than that.
“It’s not because I think it keeps Fidel Castro in power, but because these remittances help keep the people from revolting in the streets,” she said. “But she is my sister. I can’t abandon her.”
While FIU has surveyed Cuban Americans’ attitudes towards the trade embargo and other U.S. policies seven times since 1991, the recent poll marks the first time respondents were asked how much money they send to Cuba. Respondents answered conservatively, yielding a figure on the low end of remittance estimates, said Guillermo Grenier, an FIU sociology professor who authored the poll. Some experts have estimated that remittances could total up to $1 billion a year, but that figure is widely thought to be too high.
About 21 percent of respondents declined to say how much cash they sent relatives in Cuba last year, perhaps reflecting the controversy within the Cuban American community over whether remittances help families or Castro. Other respondents may have told surveyors they send less money than they do due to Treasury Department rules, which restrict annual remittances to no more than $1,200 a year. Also, Grenier said the poll may not reflect a substantial amount of money brought to Cuba by visiting emigres or by an underground network of couriers which, for a fee, bring money to Cuba through third countries.
“It is a question that really brings to light a lot of the contradictions of being Cuban American,” Grenier said. “On the one hand you’ve committed yourself to leaving Cuba and establishing a new life. But part of your identity is that of being an exile. Sending money back is a measure of how much of your identity is still tied to the island and the island’s future.”
The survey of 1,807 Cuban Americans found that sending money to Cuba is not an economic decision but rather an emotional one. Cuban Americans who arrived in South Florida after 1985 were more than twice as likely to send money to the island than their more financially secure counterparts who arrived between 1959 and 1964.
Most of those who do send money, or about 16 percent of respondents, sent $300 or less last year while 8.2 percent sent between $300 and $500 and 8.8 percent sent more than $1,000. In addition, 58 percent of all respondents said they send medicines and vitamins.
The new U.S. Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, chaired by Secretary of State Colin Powell, may recommend limiting family remittances when it releases its findings later this spring. The move would be unpopular, especially among more recent and moderate Cuban Americans. However, it would be consistent with other Bush administration efforts to close Cuba trade and travel loopholes.
In Cuba, where salaries average about $10 a month, rent and electricity are government subsidized. Ration cards offer low prices on some food staples like rice, beans, coffee and sugar. But those rations only last about two weeks out of the month. Many household necessities like cooking oil, meat and detergent are available only in dollars, at prices that are often more expensive than in U.S. stores. This is a source of frustration for many Cubans who say they barely get by on their wages at the current exchange rate of 26 pesos to $1.
Most Cubans interviewed in Havana said they use remittances strictly for food. Along with the increase in coveted tourism jobs, remittances have helped created new class divisions between those who have and don’t have families abroad.
On a recent afternoon Maria Elena Gonzalez, 58, walked to an Old Havana Western Union office on her lunch break to pick up $300 sent by her father, a retired truck driver in Miami.
“It’s an extraordinary help for my entire family,” said Gonzalez, an economist who earns the equivalent of $15 a month. “There are some things that are only sold in dollars. What the government gives you is not enough.”
Gonzalez said she does not understand that some Cuban Americans choose not to send money because of political reasons.
“Remittances are a family thing, I think everyone who is there (in Miami) makes a sacrifice for family above everything,” she said.
Carlos Garcia, who left Cuba about a dozen years ago, said he sends back about $100 a month to his family. He is the only one in his family in South Florida and as such carries a heavy financial burden caring for his retired parents, a 16-year-old son and two siblings back in Cuba.
“If it wasn’t for me, they would have a hard time scraping together enough money for food,” said Garcia, who lives in Kendall, Fla.
Some Cuban-Americans say their hatred for the Cuban government runs so deep that they refuse to send money back to relatives.
“I don’t want anything to do with Cuba,” said Irma Vega, who will send her cousins in Cuba medicine if they need it, but not cash. “I don’t want to do anything to help the government economically.”
Vega, who left Cuba at the age of 17 in 1959, might feel differently if her two sons or close relatives remained on the island, experts say.
“Most people who argue against remittances are people who no longer have relatives in Cuba,” said FIU sociology professor Lisandro Perez.
Ninoska Perez Castellon, a prominent Cuban exile activist and conservative radio talk show host, said she has no problem with people sending money to their relatives in Cuba when the money is for food or medicine.
But she finds it offensive when people send money for weddings or Quinces, the Hispanic version of a sweet 16 celebration.
“When it becomes frivolous, all it does is help the economy of Fidel Castro,” she said. “In this case, it’s an economy that helps repress the Cuban people.”