By Bonnie Friedman | New Jersey Journal staff writer
Menendez crosses party lines to vote to tighten U.S. embargo against Cuba
UNION CITY - Like many Cuban-Americans in Hudson County, Rep. Robert Menendez, D-Hoboken, has conflicting emotions over President Bush’s attempts to strengthen the embargo against Fidel Castro’s regime.
Earlier this month, Menendez - a staunch Castro opponent - crossed party lines to vote in support of the administration’s attempt to tighten restrictions on remittances to Cuba. At the same time, however, Menendez said Bush isn’t doing enough to bring about the end of Cuba’s one-party government.
The proposal to impose further limits on shipments of items such as money, clothing and personal hygiene products to family members in Cuba was voted down, 221-194, on July 7. Menendez was one of a handful of Democrats who voted to tighten the regulations.
Opponents - which included 46 Republicans - said the regulations would hurt ordinary Cubans, not Castro.
But even while backing the administration in this vote, Menendez faulted Bush for not doing enough to hasten the end of Castro’s regime, and said the president should resume enforcement of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, which permitted lawsuits in U.S. courts against businesses or individuals that operate on property confiscated by the Cuban government after Castro took power in 1959.
“I think this administration is misfocusing on where to put the effort,” Menendez said. “If we stop the explosion of commercial travel, it will do a lot more.”
The controversy over remittances reflects the split feelings of many Cubans in Hudson County - the largest enclave of Cuban-Americans outside of Florida - who want to topple Castro without hurting the Cubans who have suffered so long under his regime.
“My father cannot wash his face,” said Eusebia Zambrano, who goes to Almacen El Espanol in Union City each month to send her 88-year-old father a package of Tylenol, vitamin C, soap and shampoo - items usually sold in Cuba only to people with U.S. dollars, not Cuban pesos.
“They could attack Cuba to make it free, but don’t punish my father,” she said.
Jose Arango, chairman of the Hudson County Republican Committee, sees it another way: The Castro government, he said, wants to make its people into victims, and the U.S. government should not buy into it.
“The failure of the people not having anything to wear is not the fault of the U.S.,” said Arango, who fled Cuba with his family in 1968. “People suffer, but we all suffer. My father went from Cuba to Spain and lost everything.”
In addition to the restriction on personal shipments, the Bush administration also pushed through new regulations to reduce the number of visits Cuban-Americans can make to the island. Until last month, Cuban-Americans were allowed one trip every year to visit relatives in Cuba; now, visits are limited to once every three years and are limited only to immediate family members - parents, grandparents, spouses or siblings. The new policy also prohibits emergency visits to sick family members, a stipulation allowed under the previous rules.
The new guidelines also curtail travel by school groups and humanitarian organizations, and lower spending limits by Cuban-Americans who travel to the island from $167 a day to $50 a day.
To many newer immigrants, the tougher policies appear to be motivated by political measures, coming just four months before an election that may, once again, hinge on winning Florida.
But for exiles who left during the early days of the Castro regime, the new rules are viewed in a positive light, regardless of the motivation for it.
“It is about time to tighten the screws and get rid of this abominable regime,” said Vincent Puig, 69, chairman of the Free Cuba Task Force. “We have tried to be friendly but we got no where whatsoever. It is about time we make an effort to make things happen in Cuba.”
Last week, 120 volunteers from Pastors for Peace, an interreligious group headed by a Baptist pastor from New Jersey, returned to United States soil after making a nine-day voyage to Cuba to deliver medicine, medical equipment and school supplies.
For the last 14 years, the group has defied U.S. laws by refusing to apply for the necessary license to travel to Cuba, though this year’s trip garnered more attention in light of the recent changes.
“We never apply for or accept a license because it is immoral to license exchange between brothers and sisters,” said Lucia Bruno, communication director for the group.
Bruno said that the group, whose members ranged in age from two to 90, spent the trip visiting churches and hospitals.
When the volunteers returned on July 19, over 100 federal agents met the travelers in Hidalgo, Texas, confiscating Cuban flags and plastic bears filled with honey-gifts from ordinary Cubans who were grateful for the aid, Bruno said.
No one was arrested and no fines have yet been levied, she said.
“After four decades, the embargo hasn’t worked,” Bruno said. “Why are we still clinging to this?”
Hilda Diaz, president of Marazul Charters, a travel agency that specializes in booking trips to Cuba, said that U.S. policy toward Cuba is hypocritical, given that the government allows citizens to visit other communist countries such as Vietnam and China.
“I am for open travel anywhere,” said Diaz, whose company has offices in Weehawken and Edgewater, as well as Miami. “I don’t see why there is a need to ask for permission.”
With business down, Diaz has had to lay off about 60 percent of her staff. No one, she said, has traveled to Cuba since June 30, because the Treasury Department has only recently made the licensing forms available to the agency.
But Guillermo Estevez, 69, a director of the Free Cuba Task Force, said “Abajo Castro” - a popular chant that translates to “Down with Castro” - sums up his organization’s goals: Removing the Cuban dictator.
“‘Abajo Castro’ means a government ruled by the people - not with a bayonet, not with a rifle, but with our own conscience,” said Estevez, who spent 19 years as a political prisoner in Cuba. “‘Abajo Castro’ means change.”
Cuban exiles like Estevez believe that any support given to Cuba helps to solidify the communist government, a regime blamed for killing and impoverishing its citizens for over 40 years.
But Oscar Rodriguez, 52, of West New York, is pessimistic about the tougher policies having any effect on toppling Castro.
“For me, I love my country, but right now, I don’t care,” said Rodriguez, who left Cuba soon after Castro seized power in 1959. “He’s going to be there for years and nothing will happen.”
Newhouse News Service contributed to this report.