Politics and Policy

With its severe new Cuba regulations, the Bush administration alienated some Miami exiles, but not the ones who matter

After flying into MIA on June 29, an extra-hot Tuesday even by Miami standards, Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart strolled out of the terminal and headed for his car in the VIP parking lot. An airline passenger spotted him and soon he was swarmed by an angry mob, some of whom weeks earlier might have smiled and asked to shake his hand. They were furious because the next day, under orders from President George W. Bush, harsh new restrictions on travel to Cuba were about to kick in. Diaz-Balart, a staunch Bush ally, supported the measures, a fact well known to those who now had him cornered.

Under the old rules, Cuban Americans with family on the island could visit their relatives once a year on a kind of honor system, and more frequently than that if they received a special permit. There was no restriction on the length of the visits. Under the new rules supported by Diaz-Balart, they could travel to Cuba only once every three years, with no exceptions, and stay no more than fourteen days. Also travelers now would be required to obtain a permit from the federal government for each trip.

Tempers had flared earlier when charter airlines flying from Miami to Havana were forced to cancel at least eleven flights scheduled for that day. Many dozens of people, some of whom had flown in from other parts of the country, had purchased tickets and packed luggage with the intention of seeing their relatives in Cuba just before the new regulations took effect. The charter companies, however, had not received authorization from the U.S. State Department for the hastily arranged flights, forcing the cancellations. The travelers were enraged.

President George W. Bush
AFP Photo
President George W. Bush
Fidel Castro
AFP Photo
Fidel Castro

When they caught sight of Diaz-Balart, they pursued him to the parking lot and unleashed their fury as he stood beside his car. "You're dividing families!" one person yelled amid a frenzy of shouts and intense finger-pointing. Local television crews, whose remote trucks with extended mast-cams had been parked in the VIP lot all day, caught the whole thing.

Diaz-Balart just missed crossing paths with his nemesis Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). Garcia had rushed to MIA at the request of an MSNBC reporter. Standing on the sidewalk as cabs and buses sputtered past, Garcia told the network correspondent: "Any time the government gets between families we think it's just bad. Particularly when the president just announced a series of [other Cuba policy] measures that I think are fantastic, I think he's just put himself in a politically untenable position. And I think it's because he got bad counsel. Hopefully he can do something to correct it."

"Do you believe that travel once every three years is not a good idea?" the reporter asked.

"Not a good idea," Garcia replied. "There are thousands of things we could have done to break the most brutal dictatorship this hemisphere has ever seen."

Garcia's "bad counsel" line was a shot at Diaz-Balart and other advocates of the new restrictions, which CANF opposed.

After MSNBC was done with Garcia, he repeated his catchy putdown, one-by-one, to three local television reporters and again on numerous television talk shows and radio interviews over the next few weeks. He also came up with another zinger: The restrictions were the White House's way of "throwing some red meat to the right." Another swipe at Diaz-Balart and el exilio's hardliners -- Republican loyalists, generous with their political donations, and hungry for a return on the money: if not a military overthrow or criminal indictment of Castro and his cronies, then at least a complete cutoff of travel and monetary remittances to the island.

Garcia was at it again. A year earlier he'd created an uproar when he ridiculed Diaz-Balart as being "politically impotent" for his supposed inability to influence the Bush White House on Cuba issues. That was July 2003, two and a half years after Bush's election. The president had trashed the dictator in speeches, praised dissidents on the island, called for free elections, and vowed to uphold the hodgepodge of trade sanctions cobbled together over four decades. But that was nothing new. Even Bill Clinton, the guy who snatched Elian Gonzalez, had said all that. Clinton, in fact, signed the Helms-Burton bill, the toughest embargo law to date, after Cuban MiG pilots shot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes over the Straits of Florida, killing four people.

At best President Bush looked erratic, at worst he appeared to be in league with Castro -- at least in the eyes of some hard-core exiles. The dictator had jailed 75 dissidents in April of last year. Bush subsequently eliminated "people to people" educational trips that had begun under Clinton. The president trashed Castro again in a May 20 Cuban Independence Day speech. But then in July he repatriated twelve Cubans who had allegedly hijacked a boat to Florida. Furthermore, he negotiated directly with the Castro regime regarding the suspects' possible punishment. That deal, widely decried in the exile community, prompted Garcia's "impotent" outburst. Cuban-American state legislators and local officials from Miami-Dade followed his lead by sending Bush a warning letter: If he wanted the continued support of Cuban Americans, he'd have to crank up the pressure on Castro -- and in a big way.

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