BY DAVID CAZARES | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Mario Ernesto Romero is a proud new father, eager to tell a visitor about his 5-month-old son.
“His name is Mario, just like his grandfather, just like me, just like his great grandfather,” Romero said.
But Romero’s joy is tinged with sadness. His father, Mario Romero of Hialeah Gardens, Fla., is happy about the baby but won’t be able to spend time with the child for at least a year. Like thousands of other Cuban-Americans, the elder Romero will visit less frequently because the Bush administration last year limited visits to relatives on the island to once every three years.
In Cuba, where many people depend on relatives in the states for information and support, the new U.S. rules are widely derided. Cuba’s Catholic bishops criticized the measures, saying that like Cuban policies that limit exit permits, they affect the island’s poorest families.
The younger Romero, 34, who archives materials for the blind and shows people how to use books in Braille and computers at a regional library in Old Havana, is pained by the separation.
“I lost my mother five years ago, and all I have is my father,” said Romero, who has a degenerative eye condition and is legally blind. “When you can’t reach out, it’s like a trauma, not being able to see your loved ones as you’d like. There are moments that it makes me cry. It’s very hard.”
Romero and his father were among those interviewed by New York-based Human Rights Watch, which in October accused the United States and Cuba of imposing travel restrictions that wrench families apart and violate basic rights.
U.S. officials say the administration’s policies aren’t aimed at the Cuban people but at the Cuban government, which depends on foreign currency for its survival. Visitors to Cuba pay fees to the government, and many bring relatives cash and gifts.
“Virtually ... 95 to 98 percent of the money that comes into the island is going to end up in the hands of the state,” Michael Parmly, head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, said in a recent interview. “That ... means that money is going to feed a totalitarian state.”
According to U.S. government and business estimates, the amount of money Cubans receive annually from relatives abroad - most in the United States - varies from about $400 million to more than $1 billion.
Even Cubans who are displeased with their government for the lack of higher paying jobs and better goods and services don’t like being caught in Washington’s latest economic salvo against the island.
“That hurts the people,” said Carlos Alberto, 43, from the Diez de Octubre neighborhood, a working-class section of Havana. “How many Cubans are there in Miami? It’s good that they can come back here and share with us.”
U.S. government officials say the new measures have deprived Fidel Castro’s government of much-needed hard cash.
Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank, said the Central Intelligence Agency’s estimates show that Cuba’s economy is growing by more than $1 billion a year. At most, Peters said, the administration’s sanctions trim Cuba’s growth by a third.
“Only in Cuba has America tried to fight communism by aiming economic sanctions directly at families,” Peters said. “The policy has succeeded in hurting families, but the Cuban government is as strong as ever. And fewer visits means a reduced flow of information and ideas in a country that the administration wants to change profoundly.”
Silvia Wilhelm, a Cuban-American anti-embargo activist in Miami, said the administration’s policy won’t work because Cuba is increasingly relying on subsidies from Venezuela and trade agreements with China. The Cuban government also no longer needs to depend so heavily on dollars, because it implanted a new exchange rate in April that gives Cubans 83 convertible pesos for every $100 sent from the United States, she said.
“This (travel) policy does not represent American values,” Wilhelm said. “On the contrary, it is nothing short of a counterproductive policy that hurts the Cuban nation, both inside and outside the island.”
The elder Romero, who came to the United States 14 years ago, agreed. Since 1995 he made three to five trips a year to Cuba to visit his son, taking medicine, clothes and other things for his family. Now he sends his family what they need, but he longs to be with them.
The travel restrictions put him and other separated families in a bind, he said.
“You either comply with your conscience and your family by violating the rules, or you go against your conscience and your family by respecting the rules,” he said in his Hialeah Gardens home. “We both have a need to be with each other. I don’t see why I can only visit him once every three years. I don’t see the logic in it. It seems incredibly cruel.”
Mario Romero lights up and smiles when he talks about his grandson, whose pictures are saved on his home computer. He also proudly shows off a calendar made with a picture of the chubby baby that he affectionately calls “Mayitin,” but whom he has never met.
Romero, 62, has the same eye condition as his son and also is legally blind. Although he is recovering from a heart attack he had in November, the retired teacher and former university professor hopes to be in good health when February 2007 rolls around and he’s eligible to return to Cuba.
“I want to take care of myself so that I can see them,” he said. “I don’t know how long I can wait.”
South Florida Sun-Sentinel correspondent Madeline Baro Diaz contributed to this report.
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