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Posted May 27, 2003 by publisher in US Embargo

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By Henry Hamman in Miami | Financial Times

The US response to last month’s crackdown on dissent in Cuba that resulted in the imprisonment of 70 opposition activists has highlighted deep divisions inside the powerful Cuban-American community.

So far, President George W. Bush has limited the US response to two actions. The US this month expelled 14 Cuban diplomats on the grounds that they were intelligence agents. Meanwhile, it has launched experiments with satellites and airborne transmitters to beam into Cuba programming from US government-backed Radio and TV Marti, and begun a 24-hour transmission of a high-power short-wave broadcast of Radio Marti.

The Cuban American National Foundation, and Cuban organisations further to the left, have endorsed Mr Bush’s approach. But Ninoska Perez Castellon, a leading figure in the far-right Cuban Liberty Council, says the administration’s response has caused “disappointment from people who had been very supportive of Bush”.

“The revision of Cuba policy has taken longer than it should,” she said.

Ms Perez dismissed the experiments with more powerful broadcasts by Radio and TV Marti as “a one shot deal”, and argued that the diplomatic expulsions “had nothing to do with repression in Cuba”.

In an apparent signal of their unhappiness with the administration response, three Republican Cuban-Americans in Congress - Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart - last Tuesday declined to attend a White House ceremony honouring a number of Cuban dissidents and former political prisoners.

Organisations such as the Cuban Liberty Council urged Mr Bush to cut the dollar remittances that Cuban-Americans send to relatives in Cuba, which total up to $1bn annually. That revenue has become a mainstay of Cuba’s economy. There were also calls for cutting air links between the US and Cuba.

But many Cuban-Americans, and the Cuban American National Foundation, argued against either a remittance ban or a cut in flights.

Further, US officials doubt whether a ban on remittances would have been effective, and argue that a cut in direct flights would have simply diverted air traffic between the US and Cuba to more circuitous routes. In addition, there are worries that an overly aggressive response could provoke Mr Castro to unleash a new wave of migration to the US, as he did in 1980 and 1994.

A Bush administration official says the measures are part of an “ongoing” response to Fidel Castro’s latest crackdown on political dissent.

“People keep expecting there’s going to be this major announcement of the results of a policy review. That’s not the case. A policy review is not like an autopsy,” he said.

As part of its incremental approach, the US is expected to increase support for Cuban dissidents and civil society advocates.

Domestic political calculations also seem to be at play. Conventional wisdom holds that Mr Bush must carry Florida to win a second term, since New York and California were seen as firmly Democratic. In the past that has always meant supporting the economic embargo against Cuba, and harsh anti-Castro rhetoric.

But as more moderate Cuban-American views emerge, Mr Bush has more freedom to move towards the centre. Complicating the Florida electoral equation is the entry of Florida’s senior senator, Bob Graham, into the Democratic presidential race.

Mr Graham is popular with Cuban-Americans, and his presence on the ticket, either as the party’s candidate or vice-presidential nominee, could make winning Florida more difficult for Mr Bush.

Some analysts argue that Mr Bush’s improving opinion poll ratings mean his chances of carrying two other populous states - New York and California - are growing, and as a result the White House is somewhat less concerned about Florida.

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