Politics and Policy

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

On March 20, White House political strategist Karl Rove spoke at a Republican Party fundraiser at the Radisson Mart Plaza Hotel and Convention Centre near MIA. He sat at the dais with the local Cuban-American congressional delegation -- Lincoln Diaz-Balart, brother Mario, and Ros-Lehtinen -- and a state legislator who'd signed the letter to Bush last summer. Rove assured the crowd that a tightening of travel restrictions was coming.

Commission members met several times in Miami with hardline groups like the Junta Patriotica, Unidad Cubana, and the Cuban Liberty Council. CLC members held at least two meetings with Fisk. "It's not a secret that we had asked them to enforce the law that already existed, and also to impose further sanctions to curtail anything that would benefit Castro economically," says Ninoska Perez Castellon, a CLC executive committee member and spokeswoman. The CLC would have supported a total travel ban, she adds, with exceptions for journalists and people needing to visit the island for "humanitarian purposes," such as a gravely ill relative. "A lot of people," she says, "were traveling to Cuba not once a year but every month. That was the kind of thing we were making sure [the commission] would be effective on, because what's the point of having a law if you don't enforce it?"

The CLC supported cutting all but "humanitarian" remittances. "Basically I think the fact that the remittances weren't eliminated means we're not about cutting humanitarian aid to people," Perez Castellon contends. "But then again, a very limited number of people in the Cuban population are getting dollars from a relative in the United States. There are twelve million people in Cuba and you don't have a million people in the United States sending remittances to their relatives."

Washington hardliner Otto Reich
AFP Photo
Washington hardliner Otto Reich
CANF's Jorge Mas Santos (left) and Joe Garcia lobbied in vain against the new restrictions
Steve Satterwhite
CANF's Jorge Mas Santos (left) and Joe Garcia lobbied in vain against the new restrictions

Fisk consulted with Suchlicki, the ICCAS director, who in the past has favored enforcing existing sanctions. Suchlicki says he offered advice on the plan to intensify the restrictions, but stops short of saying he cautioned against the move. "There were differences in what they had in mind and what I had in mind," he recounts. "My ideas dealt with public diplomacy and other things, not with economic sanctions."

"I personally probably would not have favored restricting the travel per se. I just don't think that in itself will serve a purpose," says Andy Gomez, an ICCAS staff member. "But I also completely understand that you have to tie the noose around the Castro regime to try to bring about change. So I would say I'm very supportive of the restrictions overall. It is a very difficult choice."

As the commission's deadline approached, Fisk also met with Gov. Jeb Bush at the governor's local office, which happens to be located in UM's ICCAS building. Fisk briefed the governor on a draft of the transition group's report, including the new restrictions. The governor must have been satisfied. He mostly just listened, says a knowledgeable source. (Bush did not respond to requests for comment.)

Experts on Florida politics believe there is no way the new measures could have been developed without the governor's approval. Says Dario Moreno, a pollster, political scientist, and director of Florida International University's Metropolitan Center: "Jeb understands this pretty well -- you don't go wrong by advocating a hardline policy toward Cuba in an election year."

Transition working group members never met with Jorge Mas Santos or Joe Garcia, but the two tried their best to argue for increased enforcement of existing regulations rather than hitting exiles and their relatives in Cuba with new restrictions. Garcia declines to offer details of an April 16 meeting Mas held with Jeb Bush at the governor's UM office, and Mas did not respond to requests for comment. But Garcia suggests the CANF chairman would have advised the governor against the new restrictions. "We had been hearing what was going on out there, so we were already publicly saying that this isn't a good idea, the president is getting bad advice," Garcia recalls. "I picked up the phone and I called people who are in the government and know the commission members -- people in the executive branch, in the State Department, in USAID. And we talked to a lot of the local policy people, and we talked to people on the [president's re-election] campaign, and we said, 'Listen. Be careful here. This might be a mistake.' We reached out to them and said, 'Look, think about it before you pull the trigger. This might sound like a good idea, but this is not a good idea.'"

Current and former Bush administration officials scoff at Garcia's inference that he would have any pull anywhere in the executive branch. "The foundation, to my knowledge, has zip influence with this administration," says a former White House official. "So whatever input they sent in, if it was considered, it was because probably somebody else sent in the same input. This is an organization that has zero access, zero influence in this administration."

In the end, President Bush cracked down hard on family visits. (See sidebar page 26.) Under the old rules, people could travel to Cuba once a year to visit close relatives, the definition of which included second cousins. They did not need to apply for permission from the U.S. government. To go more than once a year, they needed to obtain a special license from the Treasury Department, which was routinely granted. There was no limit on the length of their stay. Now people can travel to Cuba to visit only members of their immediate family (children, mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents, and spouses). They can make such trips only once every three years, stay no more than fourteen days, and spend no more than $50 per day. In addition, they must receive written permission from the Treasury Department.

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