By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
By Frank Owen
By Allie Conti
The only real options on the transition group's table ranged from tightening restrictions on travel, money, and gifts to banning them outright. Furthermore the administration wanted to telegraph this news to certain interested parties. As early as January 30, assistant secretary of state Roger Noriega told a crowd of hardliners at a Cuban Liberty Council gala: "We have taken the initial steps to choke off resources to the regime." The administration, he added, had already increased inspections of travelers and shipments to and from Cuba and "targeted those who travel to Cuba through third countries." Law enforcement agents had recently conducted a "surge operation" in which they performed a "100 percent inspection of all flights to and from Cuba." The Cuba commission, he assured, was already drafting recommendations for "new measures."
Ten days later Treasury Secretary John Snow, whose agency was playing a central role in crafting those new measures, also spoke to the Cuban Liberty Council at the Omni Colonnade Hotel in Coral Gables. "We cannot have American dollars lining Fidel Castro's pockets and those who would perpetuate his oppressive regime," he proclaimed. He also had some tantalizing new details. The Office of Foreign Assets Control had just suspended the travel licenses of two nonprofit organizations working in Cuba on religious and humanitarian programs, and was investigating allegations the groups "may have engaged in activities outside the scope of their licenses."
Meanwhile the transition working group, State Department officials say, gathered information from a variety of sources, including the CIA, the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, and academics and foreign-policy experts at schools ranging from Harvard to the University of Miami. UM's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS) served as a home base when Fisk and Reich visited to consult with exile groups.
The transition group determined that about 125,000 Cuban Americans traveled to the island each year. Inevitably they brought cash, and frequently clothes, food, medicine, and toiletries. "I don't know how many times I came across this," says the senior State Department official, who insists on anonymity. "People would go down for family visits. They would take all their extra suitcases. They would pile up on things like clothes and other things, but not necessarily to give. They were moonlighting businesses, or they would go and do things like [sell] quince dresses. And then they would do a weekend in Varadero. So they'd go down to see family and invariably they'd say, 'Well, we want to go to the beach while we're here.' Well, the purpose of family travel isn't so you can go use Grandma as an excuse to go to the beach."
The working group also found, the official notes, that some Cuban Americans "would learn they had a second cousin and that second cousin would become the excuse for their travel. 'Well, I have to go down and visit cousin X' -- that kind of stuff. The purpose wasn't to create excuses to try to do things. We tried to strike what we felt was an appropriate balance between keeping legitimate, reasonable avenues open of ways people could support their family on the island, but that would clamp down on what had really become an area of abuse. And family travel had become an area of abuse."
On top of that were all the packages sent to the island by export houses in Miami-Dade. "Repeatedly I've heard about so many businesses in Hialeah that were shipping parcels down in the name of gift parcels, but it was for businesses [in Cuba]," the official continues. He concedes such shipments had "an entrepreneurial aspect" that could help "engender and support civil society," one of the president's policy goals. But the working group had "anecdotal" evidence the Castro regime required something from such entrepreneurs: political silence.
In sum, the transition group concluded that exiles were pumping way too much into the Cuban economy. "The value of goods and money that come from those who claim they're supporting family on the island was about a billion and a half dollars a year," the official notes.
The working group was also troubled by contradictions in the existing travel policy. "We were restricting educational travel, we were restricting other travel, and yet we had this one category [family travel] we knew was being abused, and we were going to say, 'Oh no, we're not going to do anything there.' To me that's just bad policy," says the official. "To me that did not make sense as a matter of consistency in policy, and it didn't make sense in terms of the objective of the policy, which is to deny resources to the regime."
The most vigorous debate concerned remittances. The transition group estimated they ranged from $400 to $800 million per year, half of which quickly ended up with the government. (Cuba has a state-run economy.) "The best argument I heard for eliminating remittances," the State Department official says, "is that if the idea is to increase the pressure on the regime, then we should cut down that flow of $600 to $800 million, and some figures have it over a billion on an annual basis."