By Marc Frank | Reuters
A defiant Cuban President Fidel Castro branded new U.S. travel restrictions a “pitiless” blow to Cuban families and the Bush administration as a military threat at a rally on Monday.
Facing a seven-story banner depicting President Bush as Hitler, Castro told 200,000 cheering, flag-waving students and workers outside the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana that the U.S. travel rules were “pitiless and inhumane.”
“Our people will stand up to your economic measures, whatever they may be. Forty-five years of heroic struggle against the blockade ... have not weakened but rather strengthened the revolution,” Castro said.
The new U.S. rules enforcing the four-decade old Cuba trade and travel ban aim to deny cash-strapped Cuba American dollars in an effort to hasten the demise of the communist revolution. As of June 30, Cuban-Americans will be able to visit the island only once every three years instead of each year and no humanitarian trips will be allowed.
U.S. air charter companies said at least 2,000 Cuban Americans, and possibly as many as 15,000, who thought they could beat the deadline, now face a quick return to the United States or a potential $50,000 fine. They had assumed the rules would not apply if they were in Cuba before June 30.
The charters said they were scrambling to locate their passengers, for fear they also would face penalties for carrying passengers who are technically breaking the law.
“We’re basically now talking about emergency airlifts,” said Michael Zuccato, general manager of Cuba Travel Services, which connects Miami and Los Angeles with Havana and Cienfuegos in Cuba.
The rules also ban most other Americans from traveling to Cuba, reversing the people to people policy of the Clinton administration under which tens of thousand of professionals and students visited.
The Cuban government reported 117,000 Cuban-Americans and more than 60,000 other U.S. residents visited the Caribbean island last year.
WARNING AGAINST U.S. AGGRESSION
Cuba has had only partial success in recovering from a 1990s economic depression that followed the demise of the Soviet Union, its main source of aid and trade.
This year the country was already facing a serious drought, high oil and shipping prices, and other problems before the Bush administration measures were announced on May 6.
Castro said the measures were motivated by this year’s presidential election, echoing Bush critics in the United States who charge the policy aims at garnering conservative Cuban-American votes in the swing-state of Florida.
“The worst thing about your ridiculous, clumsy anti-Cuban policy is that you and your closest advisers have brazenly proclaimed your goal of forcibly imposing what you call political transition on Cuba,” Castro said.
Castro repeatedly implied the Bush administration wanted to provoke a crisis and launch military action against the country, a charge denied by U.S. officials.
“Do not try crazy adventures such as surgical strikes or wars of attrition using sophisticated techniques, because you could loose control of the situation,” Castro warned Bush. (Additional reporting by Pablo Bachelet in Washington)