By ABBY GOODNOUGH and TERRY AGUAYO | New York Times
Miriam Verdura could hardly wait to visit family in her native Cuba next month, her second trip since immigrating to southern Florida in 1999. But the Bush administration has dashed her plans with restrictions that start next Wednesday.
“It’s inhuman,” said Ms. Verdura, who was at the airport Wednesday morning seeing off friends who managed to book round-trip flights before the rules take effect and who were checking baggage with dozens of other travelers.
Because she last visited in 2002, Ms. Verdura will be ineligible to return until next year.
“Bush’s priority should first of all be to not keep Cuban families apart, because we suffer a lot,” she said.
The rules, published over the last week, have been promoted by President Bush as a way to hasten the end of the Castro government and were formulated at the urging of Republican Cuban-American lawmakers and others here. They limit Cuban-Americans to one trip home every three years and make it nearly impossible for most other Americans to visit the Communist island. They also restrict cash transfers and gift packages to Cubans.
“The only way to get rid of Fidel is to get tight on him,” said Mario Guzman, 75, who immigrated here in 1973 and was waiting to play dominoes in a park in the Little Havana section. “The main reason why he’s still in power is because the very Cubans he forced out are bringing him dollars back.”
But if supporters of a hard-line position toward Havana are applauding the measures, other Cuban-Americans are not. The regulations have sent travel agents and many travelers spinning as they try to rearrange plans by next Wednesday, when the government-issued licenses that Cuban immigrants have used will become invalid, and violators of the rules will face up to $4,000 in fines.
Charter companies are adding flights this week between Miami and Cuba, and travel agents are scrambling to find customers who have already left and warn them to return before Wednesday. Colleges and universities face canceling dozens of Cuban travel programs, and boaters can no longer dock there, even if they spend no money.
“People are crying, saying, ‘Please, can’t you put me on a plane?’ ” Tessie Aral, vice president and chief executive of ABC Charters, said. “One said, ‘I have to go because my mother is dying.’ They can’t wait another three years.”
The measures are part of a broader plan that President Bush announced last month to be tougher on President Fidel Castro and speed a transition to democracy in Cuba. Democrats and even some Republicans say the election-year crackdown is a nakedly political move to bolster Mr. Bush’s support among Cuban-Americans in southern Florida, a crucial segment of his base in this swing state.
A debate is raging about whether Mr. Bush went too far and whether the crackdown could in fact hurt his re-election prospects.
“It’s very important for people to vote against him because of this policy,” Ms. Aral said. “When we were helping check people into a flight last weekend, I said: ‘Are you registered to vote? Then you need to vote this November.’ Eighty percent said they would.”
On the other side of the debate are older Cuban-Americans like Mr. Guzman who arrived here decades ago, who take a much harder stance than their younger counterparts against Mr. Castro and press Washington do the same. Many are more affluent and educated than recent immigrants, far more likely to vote and less likely to visit Cuba. They are steadfast Republicans who helped ensure Mr. Bush’s 537-vote victory over Al Gore here in 2000.
A spokesman for Mr. Bush’s campaign, Reed Dickens, said the rules were not a vote-getting tactic but an effort to free Cubans from Mr. Castro’s hold. “No one has a stronger record than President Bush in fighting the Castro regime while at the same time helping the oppressed people of Cuba,” Mr. Dickens said.
Under the changes, United States residents will be allowed to visit relatives once every three years instead of once a year. They will be able to spend $50 a day, down from $167, plus $50 a day for transportation, if needed. Visitors will need a special license that will let them visit immediate family members only, for up to 14 days at a time.
Until now, a “general license” has allowed them to visit relatives like cousins and aunts.