GEORGE GEDDA | Associated Press
WASHINGTON - President Bush is positioning himself to curry favor with conservative constituents who believe his Cuba policy, for all of the anti-Castro rhetoric, hasn’t added up to much.
No one doubts that Bush has tried to make life more difficult for the Cuban leader. If not for Bush’s veto threats, Congress probably would have ended a ban on recreational travel to Cuba by Americans.
Indeed, Bush has moved the policy in the opposite direction, closing a loophole four months ago that many Americans were using in violation of the travel prohibition.
Bush has decried the “chokehold” that Castro maintains on the island, but some of Bush’s strongest supporters among Cuban-Americans say his actions have not gone far enough.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-born Florida Republican, sent Bush a letter last year listing 13 areas in which, she said, he has not fully implemented provisions of sanctions-tightening Cuba legislation approved in 1996.
One such example is Bush’s refusal to permit Americans to sue in U.S. courts anyone profiting from property in Cuba that was confiscated by Cuban authorities after Castro took power on Jan. 1, 1959.
Ros-Lehtinen was traveling on Tuesday and was unavailable for comment on whether Bush has been responsive to her letter.
Some Democrats are unhappy as well. New Jersey Rep. Robert Menendez criticized Bush’s policy toward fleeing Cuban migrants, saying 2,000 have been repatriated during the Bush era despite what he described as administration promises to welcome them to U.S. shores.
In an interview, Menendez also took aim at Bush’s decision last October to form a government commission to recommend ways to hasten a transition to democracy and to provide assistance to Cuba once Castro is no longer around. He soon will be 78.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, who headed the commission, sent a 500-page report to the White House on Monday. Bush is expected to make final decisions on the recommendations shortly.
Menendez chided Bush for setting up a commission with a deadline “virtually on the eve the election. It’s so politically transparent that it would be laughable except for all people who are languishing inside of Cuba.”
Wayne Smith, who served as chief U.S. diplomat in Cuba 25 years ago, criticizes Bush from the left. He believes Castro was moving slowly toward more political openness early in Bush’s term before cracking down last year.
Smith said Bush’s policies were partly to blame, while making clear that Castro is the main culprit by far for the repression.
The former diplomat suggested that talk in Washington of “regime change” in Cuba, reminiscent of Iraq, only makes it easier for Castro to keep a opponents at bay.
Beyond that, Smith said he has no faith that a more robust anti-Castro policy, as recommended in the commission report, will have much of an impact.
He said Cuban-Americans will continue to send money to relatives in Cuba regardless of whether Bush tries to sharply reduce the legal limit of $1,200 a year.
“If they want to send money, they’ll send it by courier,” said Smith, who for years has advocated establishing normal relations with the island.
A senior administration official said dollar flows from the United States to Cuba could run as high as $3 billion, adding that effective measures to curb these revenues would hurt the economy and have political consequences.
Family remittances are a chief source of revenue for Cuba. There is support among some officials for eliminating them. This would deal a heavy blow to the Cuban economy but also would have a dramatic impact on families who need the money to eat.
The senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bush probably will attempt to cut the $1,200 ceiling to a degree that the economy would feel the pain without forcing recipients to go hungry.
It’s a tough balancing act. Whatever Bush decides, Castro does not envision a transition for his country.
“We had our transition in 1959,” he says.
EDITOR’s NOTE - George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for The Associated Press since 1968.