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Posted May 05, 2003 by publisher in US Embargo

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BY TIM JOHNSON | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Miami Herald

Florida reaction a concern for ‘04

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration has compiled several options—ranging from mild action to confrontation—in reaction to Cuba’s recent offensive to smash the pro-democracy forces on the island.

The most radical options would virtually dare Fidel Castro’s regime to unleash a new rafter exodus across the Florida Straits and risk military hostilities with the United States, although most observers expect the Bush administration to settle on a much more moderate approach.

Senior Bush administration officials say the White House will soon announce measures in response to Cuba’s arrests of about 75 pro-democracy activists since mid-March.

The repression by the Castro regime virtually erased a small but growing civic opposition. Following an island-wide dragnet, which led to summary trials and jail terms of six to 28 years for the activists, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice solicited memos from several senior Bush administration officials for options on U.S. action. The internal debate has been spirited, according to several officials.

No final decision has been made, the officials said. A major concern is to avoid steps that could harm President Bush’s chances of winning Florida, a linchpin state, in his reelection bid next year.

Measures under active consideration, sources said, include:

Reducing staffing levels at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Such a move would force Cuba to reciprocate with a reduction of diplomatic staff in Washington.

Suspending the 30 or so weekly charter flights that carry exiles on humanitarian visits to Cuba.

Placing new limits on remittances that Cuban Americans may send to relatives on the island.

Suspending export licenses to U.S. companies selling agricultural goods to Cuba.

Tightening existing restrictions on travel to Cuba. Last year, an estimated 176,000 U.S. citizens visited the island, mostly for family visits allowed by the Treasury Department, which regulates travel to nations hostile to the United States.

‘‘Everything is being looked at,’’ one senior official said.

Some outside experts suggest the best course of action may be to do little—leaving Cuban officials in post-Iraq jitters, unsettled by the route the Bush administration might take.

Others note that the crackdown has triggered European action against the Castro regime, broadening a decades-old shouting match between Havana and Washington into a new arena. Last week, the European Union held up Cuba’s request to join the Cotonou Agreement, a preferential pact that provides beneficial trade terms and development assistance to former European colonies.

‘‘When they crack down like this, it seems like we should do something. But maybe not,’’ said Susan Kaufman Purcell, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a business group based in New York.

Others expect the White House to announce tougher measures on Cuba by May 20, the anniversary of Cuban independence, or sooner.

As officials look at the pros and cons of each option, however, it is difficult to find steps that don’t have drawbacks, several observers and officials said.

On the issue of remittances and family visits to the island, Cuban Americans are permitted to send $1,200 to family members and make one humanitarian visit a year.

The remittances are an economic lifeline for the Castro regime, sending anywhere from $400 million to $1 billion in foreign exchange to the island.

‘‘It is the single largest source of foreign exchange for the Cuban government,’’ said John S. Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a nonpartisan business group.

The remittances benefit as many as 30 percent of Cuba’s 11 million citizens.

Restricting remittances would hurt the Castro government—but also impose suffering on average Cubans and limit the independence of pro-democracy activists. The Cuban-American community is divided over any new limits, even as spokesmen say existing restrictions are widely flouted.

‘‘There are people who go down 30 times a year, and they have bulging suitcases and five hats,’’ said Dennis Hays, a vice president of the Cuban American National Foundation, an exile advocacy group.

Some believe that announcing a cutback on remittances would be merely symbolic.

‘‘I think it’s unenforceable,’’ said a congressional staff member who watches Cuba policy closely. “Are they going to strip-search people at Miami International? No.’‘

If the White House were to end charter flights to Havana, Cuban exiles would likely travel to third countries, such as Mexico or Jamaica, to travel to Havana, slowing visits only marginally.

‘‘In effect, we’d be giving more passengers to Cubana,’’ the staff member said, referring to the state-owned airline that carries tourists from destinations in the Caribbean and Latin America to Havana.

Some observers say they expect the White House to announce action to overcome jamming of U.S.-operated Radio and TV Mart, issue a resounding call for regime change of Cuba’s ‘‘cynical tyrant’’ and impose a lengthy review for any application for trade and travel to the island.

Within the administration, though, a few officials advocate a more confrontational approach with Castro.

‘They say, `Let’s push harder.’ If that precipitates a Cuban attempt at repeating Mariel, then some of them say, ‘bring it on,’ ‘’ said one Washington-based analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

During the Mariel boatlift in 1980, 125,000 Cubans crossed the Florida Straits. In 1994, amid severe economic crisis, Castro allowed another 30,000 or so rafters to leave the island.

Hays said calls for inviting an intense crisis are limited.

‘‘There are very, very few who are advocating a military solution to this situation,’’ he said.

Any action that might provoke a new boatlift could be a high-stakes gamble—for both the Castro regime and the Bush administration.

Any exodus of rafters from Cuba could trigger a similar exodus from Haiti, leading to political and economic havoc in the state. Florida, a critical state in the 2000 presidential election, is even more critical in 2004. It has gained two votes—to 27—in the Electoral College system that determines the presidency.

‘’[Castro would] be quite foolhardy to mess with a resolute George W. Bush,’’ said Ana Navarro, an advisor to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. “The administration has taken care of one tyrant already. I don’t think they would vacillate about taking care of another one.’’

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