Simon Tisdall | The Guardian
The US treasury secretary, John Snow, had an important message for the people of Florida when he addressed the Greater Boca Raton chamber of commerce last month.
George Bush’s administration was leading a strong economic recovery, Mr Snow claimed; its tax cuts had worked wonders for small businesses. Look at Mug-a-Bug Pest Control Inc. of Lawrenceville, Georgia, he urged.
“Mug-a-Bug report that homeowners who had previously cancelled their quarterly pest control service during the slow days of the economy reinstated the service after tax cuts went into effect,” Mr Snow declared. Mug-a-Bug had since purchased five new vehicles and hired three new employees.
An alternative explanation for Mug-a-Bug’s success is that, under Mr Bush, creepy-crawlies are on the rise. But no matter. As November’s presidential vote approaches, the Republicans are once again throwing everything they’ve got at Florida, the state that delivered the White House to Mr Bush in 2000 by a mere 537 votes.
The highlight of Mr Snow’s speech was the US embargo on Cuba. “The objectives of US policy towards Cuba are clear,” he said. “Bring an end to the ruthless and brutal dictatorship; assist the Cuban people in a transition to representative democracy; and assist in establishing a free market economy.”
Mr Snow listed a series of toughened sanctions on Cuba, designed to reinforce the 1963 US embargo. The measures include tighter restrictions on remittances and travel to the island.
Visits by US-based exiles to family members in Cuba, for example, are limited to one trip of no more than 14 days every three years, with no exceptions for illness or bereavement.
In another blow for freedom, the treasury department’s office of foreign assets control (Ofac) stipulates that no US visitor may spend more than $50 a day in Cuba - for fear of lining Fidel Castro’s pockets.
Gifts deemed to be non-essential by the lifestyle gurus of the treasury are also outlawed under the Trading with the Enemy Act.
“Not more than one parcel may be sent or given by the same person in the US to the same recipient in Cuba in any one calendar month,” the regulations state.
“Medical supplies and devices” are allowed and so too, for some reason, are “veterinary medicines, fishing supplies and soap-making equipment”. But luxuries are out. Total parcel value “must not exceed $200”. The likes of Mug-a-Bug Inc certainly cannot do business in Havana. The penalty for violating the regulations is up to 10 years in jail and $1m in fines.
Mr Snow noted that Ofac enforces US sanctions on a total of 29 “rogue nations” worldwide. But Cuba gets special treatment, he bragged. “Because of its proximity and distinctive relationship with the US, [Cuba] has a unique and critical sanction programme which receives strict attention.”
To the outside world, US policy towards Cuba seems unjust. But the electoral significance of Mr Snow’s performance is clear. Cuba is hot politics in Florida. The state’s population of 2.68 million Hispanics accounts for 16.8% of the vote.
In the 2000 election Cuban-Americans favoured Mr Bush by more than four to one - a striking, possibly decisive, bias in an otherwise even contest.
Republicans hope to repeat the trick on November 2 and tough talk and actions such as Mr Snow’s new sanctions will help them to do so - or so the argument goes.
Mr Bush has been busy waging his anti-Castro campaign on other fronts, too. His Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, set up last year, has been developing plans to destabilise the Cuban government and manage a transition “from Stalinist rule to a free and open society”.
Mr Bush also claims to have broken “the Castro regime’s information blockade” by beaming previously jammed radio and TV broadcasts into the island from a national guard aircraft circling overhead.
“The Cuban people are hearing the truth once again,” he told a campaign rally in Miami last month. “They should be free from the tyrant.” Mr Bush was back in Florida this week.
This flurry of administration activity has its roots in complaints last year by Cuban-Americans that Mr Bush had broken his promise in 2000 to get tough on Mr Castro. Republicans began to worry they might switch their votes to the Democrats’ John Kerry.
Egged on by Mr Bush’s brother, Jeb Bush, Florida’s Republican governor, the White House jumped into action. But now, voices within this same Cuban-American community are complaining that the travel and other sanctions go far too far and penalise ordinary families.
The president’s hardline policy, refurbished for the election season, may yet backfire on him.