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HavanaJournal.com: Cuban Americans

Cuban American Family Remittance Limits Feared

Posted February 16, 2004 by publisher in Cuban Americans.
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BY DAVID OVALLE | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

The possibility of new Bush administration curbs on money remittances to Cuba worries many Cubans in South Florida, who say their relatives desperately need the funds sent to the island.

Arnaldo Rangel works 12-hour shifts as a security guard, usually seven days a week, to earn only about $1,200 a month. But every few months, the Opa-locka resident scrapes together $40, maybe $100, to wire to his wife and two adult children in Cuba.

He knows where his money goes. His wife in Cienfuegos uses the funds to buy staples such as rice, beans, cooking oil and soap.

The U.S. government is not so sure.

The Treasury Department announced this week that it would ‘‘take a hard look’’ at restricting ‘‘remittance’’ rules that allow Cuban Americans to send as much as $1,200 a year to relatives on the island.

The government wants to be sure that the money really is ‘‘going to where it’s supposed to,’’ Treasury Secretary John Snow said during a press conference announcing a crackdown on Cuban-owned companies conducting illegal business in the United States.

A spokeswoman for the Treasury Department said Friday that details of how remittance rules would be changed are still to be determined.

The move to restrict remittances, spokeswoman Tara Bradshaw said, stems from President Bush’s speech in October that condemned Cuban President Fidel Castro for recent crackdowns on dissidents.

VAGUE BUT OMINOUS

Despite the vagueness of Snow’s statement, his words have stirred worries among many Cuban Americans in South Florida who regularly send money to family members on the island.

It has also spurred debate in South Florida’s Cuban-American community and, observers say, highlighted the rifts between older political exiles and newer economic refugees from the island.

‘‘The [Cuban Americans] who are in a position to try and influence U.S. policy are not the same people who have relatives in Cuba,’’ said Lisandro Perez, a sociology professor at Florida International University.

Many Cuban Americans have family members on the island who depend on the remittances because many goods can be bought only with dollars. Some send only tangible goods such as blankets and medicine because they fear hard cash will end up in the hands of Cuban officials.

Others say they have heard the threats of remittance restrictions before and dismiss such talk as election-year pandering to Cuban-American voters. And some, like Rangel, the security guard, say that if the government does restrict remittances, Cuban Americans would still find ways to get cash to their families.

‘‘The wages are so low in Cuba,’’ said Rangel, who left his family eight years ago after being granted a U.S. visa. “They need dollars to survive.’‘

Various estimates say remittances contribute between $400 million and $1 billion to the island’s economy each year, making it the largest source of revenue behind tourism.

Sending cash to Cuba is a cottage industry in South Florida, sometimes legal, sometimes not.

Wire transfer services, such as Western Union and hosts of smaller agencies, are authorized to send money to the island. The legal option, however, is not always popular.

When Western Union began wiring money directly to Cuba in 1999, many people shied away because they had to fill out an affidavit and pay a $29 flat fee. A year ago, Miami-based UNO Money Transfer, which has 500 locations nationwide, stopped sending money to Cuba because it was averaging only about 10 orders per month.

FINDING A WAY

‘‘My sense is that if they restrict it, [remittances] will still go through anyway,’’ said Oscar Garcia, UNO Money Transfer’s president.

Indeed, Cuban Americans say they sometimes circumvent the rules by paying travelers a commission, sometimes as high as 15 percent, to smuggle bundles of bills to the island.

Travelers to the island can take up to $300 per household for people who are related to them; it is illegal to carry money on anyone else’s behalf.

Hard-line anti-Castro activists, many who left the island decades ago, have long derided remittances as contributing to a brutal government. Cuban households with senior-level Cuban government or Communist Party members are not supposed to receive remittance money.

‘‘The money goes to the dollar stores, and who are the owners? The government,’’ said Rodolfo Frometa, the director of the exile group Comandos F-4. “The Cuban government gets it all.’‘

`DIVERSIONARY TACTIC’

The president of the Cuban American National Foundation, Francisco ‘‘Pepe’’ Hernandez, called the remittance proposal a ‘‘diversionary tactic’’ by the Bush administration to avoid tackling tougher issues such as revising the controversial policy for Cuban migrants detained at sea.

Political nuances mean little to the Cuban Americans who gather at the beginning of each month at the Western Union in a crowded strip mall on Southwest Eight Street near Southwest 82nd Avenue.

Pedro, who works at the front counter and asked that his last name not be used, sees the same faces every few months.

He knows the stories about the customers’ families, and how poorly they are faring in Cuba.

He sympathizes because he has more than 20 family members in Cuba, including his three children. Pedro obtained a U.S. visa four years ago and wires money to his family through Western Union.

‘‘I get a certain satisfaction from helping Cubans send money to their families,’’ he said. “The older Cubans, they don’t feel the pain we do.

“They don’t have family to send money to.’‘

VITAL ASSISTANCE

A few miles east, at El Almacen Espaņol, Mario Delgado sat with his wife last week and filled out paperwork to send packages to his elderly sister in Cuba, where a salary of 200 pesos a month equals about $10.

Delgado sighed in exasperation when asked about the possibility of restricted remittances. Across the Florida Straits, in the countryside outside Matanzas, his 65-year-old sister lives in a shack made of slabs of cardboard and tin.

She is the only family member left on the island, but she has not been able to secure a visa to the United States. So, she waits for the few dollars and packages her brother sends every few months.

‘‘Politics don’t matter to me,’’ Delgado said. “My sister only lives to eat.’‘

Herald staff writer Elaine de Valle contributed to this report.

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