By Rafael Lorente | Washington Bureau | Associated Press
WASHINGTON · The Bush administration is considering making significant cuts in the amount of money Americans are allowed to send to family and others in Cuba, according to sources familiar with the discussions of the president’s Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba.
One proposal under review would temporarily freeze all remittances—possibly for six months—after which the administration would reinstate them at much lower levels than currently allowed.
“We’re not going to make any comment on that,” said Gonzalo Gallegos, spokesman for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs in the State Department, when asked about the proposal earlier this week.
Remittances are controversial among Cuban-Americans, with some arguing they help prop up the government of Cuban President Fidel Castro by pumping money into the island’s economy. Others, though, say they must send money to help their relatives get by. Restricting remittances would likely be seen favorably by some Cuban-Americans who would like to see the Bush administration do more to isolate the communist government.
President Bush, who will be in Coral Gables today for a fund-raiser, has been criticized by some Cuban-Americans who say he has not lived up to campaign promises to take a harder line on Castro.
Estimates of the amount of money sent each year to Cuba range from $100 million to five or even 10 times that much. Experts say remittances and tourism are the two largest sources of cash for the Cuban government.
Currently, Americans can send no more than $300 per quarter to a Cuban household.
The Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, appointed by President Bush in October, will issue recommendations on ways to hasten a transition to democracy on the island and ways to assist Cuba during such a transition. It is scheduled to present its options to the president May 1.
Decision next month
It is unclear, however, when the president will make the commission’s findings public and whether parts of the report will be kept secret. Many expect the president to make an announcement around May 20, the 102nd anniversary of Cuba’s independence from Spain.
The commission is chaired by Secretary of State Colin Powell and includes Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and representatives from other parts of the government. It features five working groups focusing on issues such as hastening democracy, creating democratic institutions and improving infrastructure and the environment.
The commission’s work has been kept mostly secret, with administration officials refusing to discuss potential recommendations.
“We’re preparing the report for the president, and when the president gets it he’ll decide which recommendations he wants to take,” said a State Department official who asked not to be named.
But earlier this week, in a press release criticizing the Cuba policy views of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, the former co-chair of the commission said remittances were being studied.
“Unbeknownst to Kerry, the U.S. currently allows remittances and is currently engaged in discussions about ending them because they are not helpful,” said Republican Mel Martínez, the former Housing Secretary who co-chaired the commission until his decision to run for the U.S. Senate in Florida.
In an interview, Martínez denied knowing anything about the commission’s deliberations, saying his press release referred to the desire of some in the Cuban-American community to cut the flow of dollars to Castro.
“I’m not a part of the commission. ... I just know that this is a topic that has been on the table when groups from Miami come to Washington,” Martínez said.
There is significant opposition among Cuban-Americans and others to ending or severely restricting remittances.
“How do we expect to help civil society in Cuba, which gets most of its assistance from Cuban exile organizations?” said Joe García, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation. García, a Democrat, and the foundation are longtime proponents of providing assistance to dissidents in Cuba.
For many Cubans, cash transfers from relatives abroad are a vital supplement to low state salaries and pensions. They say it is difficult to stretch the average $10 monthly state salary to buy food, let alone necessary extras such as detergent, soap and shoes. Those items are mostly available only in dollars at prices that often surpass U.S. prices. Retiree Andres González Martínez, who receives a monthly $6 pension, says he uses his $100 to $200 remittances from a relative in New Jersey strictly for food and other necessities.
“It’s not for luxuries,” Martínez, 73, said. “I don’t even have a stereo in my house.”
Food, not luxuries
Elsa Morejon, wife of Oscar Elias Biscet, a dissident sentenced to 25 years in prison, said she understands that many Cubans need the remittances to supplement their incomes. But she said the money should be used for food, not luxuries.
“If [Cuban-Americans] send money, send it for the families to subsist, not to enrich the government,” said Morejon, who herself receives money from relatives in Miami and from an organization of exiles who support the wives of jailed dissidents.
In a recent poll conducted for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and WTVJ Channel 6 by Florida International University, 54 percent of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade and Broward counties said they send money to Cuba. The average amount was $387 a year.
But cutting remittances, while angering some in Cuba and their relatives in South Florida, may play well with Bush’s political base among Cuban exiles.
In the South Florida Sun-Sentinel poll, 75 percent of Cuban-Americans who arrived in the United States after 1985 said they sent money to the island.
But only 31 percent of those who arrived before 1965 said they sent money.
The early arrivals are less likely to have close relatives on the island and, significantly, have tougher anti-Castro views than the recent arrivals. They also are more likely to vote and to support Bush.
“It would be draconian,” said Philip Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute and a proponent of improving relations with Cuba. “It would have a terrible humanitarian impact in Cuba and it would send a signal that the administration wants to make life difficult for Cubans in the hope that it would bring about political change in Cuba.
“And politically, it would be a signal that the administration is targeting the oldest, most hard-line element in the Cuban community who don’t have family in Cuba.”
But legally cutting remittances may not do much to stem the flow of money into the island, said Mark Falcoff, a Latin America expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the author of the recently published book Cuba: The Morning After. People will find other ways to get money in, such as through third countries, Falcoff said.
Falcoff, who was briefly a consultant to the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, said it is not clear whether cutting remittances would really hurt the Castro government. In a country where the government controls so many aspects of people’s lives, remittances provide a certain amount of independence for some people.
“Those remittances do relieve the situation for a lot of families and also create a situation for the government because it creates a whole class of Cubans who don’t owe anything, or as much, to the Cuban government,” Falcoff said.
Emilio González, a Bush supporter who until last year served as a Latin America expert in the White House, said the president is simply considering all options on Cuba policy.
“The president is being consistent about Cuba and trying to promote a rapid transition to democracy,” González said. “In reviewing its Cuba policy, the administration will, I am sure, put everything on the table. This is in sharp contrast to Sen. Kerry, who has spoken about Cuba but has said nothing about what direction he would go.”
Havana Bureau Chief Vanessá Bauzá contributed to this report