President George W. Bush
President George W. Bush
AFP Photo

Politics and Policy

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.

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.

It was the proverbial wake-up call for the White House, whose officials thanked Garcia by blackballing him. As far as the Bush team was concerned, CANF's tradition of pragmatism in political donations -- giving to candidates of both parties -- was unacceptable. But Garcia's remarks about Diaz-Balart reportedly went too far, not only dishonoring a loyal supporter of the president but also tarnishing the reputations of Bush's Cuban-American political appointees, including White House advisers Otto Reich and Emilio Gonzalez. Kevin Whitaker, head of the State Department's Office of Cuban Affairs, canceled his scheduled appearance at CANF's annual membership congress a few days later. Garcia and his boss, CANF chairman Jorge Mas Santos, have been unable to meet with administration officials ever since.

That didn't stop Garcia and Miami-Dade's state legislators from taking some credit when President Bush stepped out to the Rose Garden on October 10, 2003, and announced the creation of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which would undertake a thorough review of U.S. relations with the island nation. More than a dozen agencies would participate. Secretary of State Colin Powell and HUD Secretary Mel Martinez, a proud Cuban American, would be co-chairs. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega, a former aide to North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, would run its day-to-day operations, along with his deputy Dan Fisk, another former Helms adviser.

The Bush administration had already been poised to develop sweeping new plans for a post-Castro Cuba, so no one was surprised when the president instructed the commission to find ways to help a free Cuba establish democratic institutions, develop respect for human rights, create a market economy, modernize its infrastructure, and so on. Bush was also expected to seek tougher enforcement of existing restrictions on travel to Cuba.

But his Rose Garden announcement also contained something not expected, a surprise that caught some administration officials off guard and which they believe he penned into his speech at the last minute. Bush called for additional steps to "hasten the arrival of" democracy, diplospeak that could be translated as "exterminate Castro."

Administration sources explain that the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, as its very name indicated, was intended to consider Cuba after the Castro regime had ended. Hastening the transition -- squeezing Fidel by drastically restricting travel and remittances to the island -- was not supposed to be part of the commission's mandate. And so Bush's unexpected addition of this incendiary component prompted much speculation. The move had clear political overtones (placating Miami's exile hardliners), but who was responsible?

"I think this came out of the White House," offers Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. "My impression is that this president from day one was interested in hastening Cuba's transition, and even before that he had a dislike for Fidel Castro," says Suchlicki, whose firm opposition to Castro is well known. "Maybe he was overtaken by events, 9/11 and other things. But Cuba was, in the thinking of the people around him, a high priority after his election -- and before his election. Otto [Reich] was there and Emilio [Gonzalez] and Karl Rove, and all these guys looked at Fidel as an anomaly and Cuba as a thing that should be put into the dustbin of history. They came to the White House with that kind of mentality." (Reich and Gonzalez declined to comment.)

President Bush could no longer be accused of ignoring Cuba. He had now called on virtually every federal agency to contribute to an unprecedented plan to free the island from tyranny and help rebuild it. The core group of the commission consisted of six Cabinet members: National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Treasury Secretary John Snow, Commerce Secretary Don Evans, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonse Jackson, and USAID administrator Andrew Natsios. The commission was divided into five "working groups" that would make recommendations for achieving the following goals: meeting basic needs in health, education, housing, and human services; establishing democratic institutions, respect for human rights, the rule of law, and national justice and reconciliation; establishing the core institutions of a free economy; modernizing infrastructure and addressing environmental degradation; and last but certainly not least, hastening Cuba's transition.

The commission didn't convene for the first time until December 5, 2003, yet the White House set a quick deadline of May 1 for the delivery of all recommendations. Anything later into the presidential campaign season risked being viewed by el exilio as an election-year ploy. "We tried to keep it out of the silly season," says a senior State Department official. But that would prove impossible.

Politics dogged the commission's work almost immediately. Just two weeks after its launch, the Senate passed a measure to end the ban on travel to Cuba. It came in the form of an appropriations-bill amendment that would zero out funding for enforcement of the ban. The vote was 59-to-36, with nineteen of the Yes votes cast by Bush's fellow Republicans. (The amendment was later stripped from the bill.)

For the working group charged with developing recommendations for "hastening Cuba's transition," it soon became clear their research would be guided by political considerations, an awareness reinforced by the group's leading members. This was not just another team of policy wonks; it was a politically savvy crew. Fisk, a veteran foreign policy adviser who helped write the 1996 Helms-Burton law, was coordinator. Three of Bush's Cuban-American appointees were also members. One was Mauricio Tamargo, the chairman of the Treasury Department's Foreign Claims Settlement Commission and former chief of staff for Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Another was Adolfo Franco, assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Agency for International Development. The third was the president's Envoy for Western Hemisphere Initiatives, Otto Reich, who had long advocated squelching the flow of dollars to the Cuban dictator. He was a lobbyist for Bacardi and the nonprofit Center for a Free Cuba when Bush tapped him in 2001 to be Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. But Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee blocked the nomination. Among their concerns were his State Department activities related to the Iran-contra affair, which a congressional investigation concluded were part of a disinformation campaign and which the U.S. comptroller general deemed were "prohibited covert propaganda activities."

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."

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."

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.

The president also slammed Cuban Americans who send cash remittances. Previously people could wire $300 every three months to any household in Cuba (except select government officials and members of the Cuban Communist Party). Now only remittances to immediate family members are allowed. Travelers used to be able to take up to ten $300 remittances per visit and hand them out; now they can take just one.

And he narrowed the U.S. Commerce Department's already short list of items that can be included in Cuba-bound gift parcels and luggage. The new rule removed "seeds, clothing, personal hygiene items, veterinary medicines and supplies, fishing equipment, and soap-making equipment." The only things left on the list are food, medicine, medical supplies, receive-only AM/FM or shortwave radios, and batteries for the radios.

"I'll be very candid with you," says the senior State Department official. "We want to increase the stresses on that regime, including their budget allocations. We want them to have to explain to the Cuban people why a Cuban policeman is paid four-plus times more than a Cuban nurse. That's not a decision of the United States, that's a decision of the regime. We want to increase the budget allocation complications of the regime. There's a bar of soap for every tourist in Cuba. Why isn't there a bar of soap for every Cuban? Part of the policy is we've asked for some sacrifices from the Cuban people and the Cubans in the U.S. with family on the island. The purpose of this isn't just to inflict pain. The purpose of this isn't just to kind of gratuitously slap people. It's a comprehensive policy. It's not just about personal hygiene products or seeing a relative once every three years. It's about doing everything we can to actually fulfill the objective, which is to hasten change on the island."

While President Bush was in Washington formally announcing his tough new Cuba policy on May 6, Joe Garcia and Jorge Mas Santos were already responding at a news conference of their own at CANF's Little Havana headquarters. They congratulated the president for the commission's decision to sink millions more dollars into Radio and TV Martí, which Mas Santos's father, the late Jorge Mas Canosa, had persuaded the Reagan administration to create in 1985. They also lauded Bush for redoubling his support for dissidents in Cuba and authorizing more political and religious organizations to send money to them. They thought "98 percent" of the commission's 500-page report was "fantastic." The only problems were the tighter restrictions that would hurt Cuban-American families. The current regulations were tough enough, Garcia said repeatedly. They just needed to be enforced, that's all.

"If you look at all the legislation the Cuban American National Foundation has pushed, you'll never see anything like this," Garcia continues. "We'll punish investors in Cuba, tourists, we'll punish the Castro regime. But we've always promoted family reunification. We've always promoted people being able to see their families. This violates the very basic tenet of putting family before government.

"The worst thing that happened," he adds, "is they changed the debate. The debate since the dissidents have been put in jail was basically the Cuban government versus its citizens. But now the debate is, again, the United States versus Cuba."

The debate is now also about just whom las restricciones will hurt most -- Cuban-American families, the Castro regime, or Bush and Sen. John Kerry's election hopes. "Obviously the administration made a political decision, in the way that all politicians do, of which particular voice of a particular constituency they were going to listen to," says Mark Falcoff, a Latin America policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, who briefly sat on the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. "They make their decisions, as every administration does, based on a combination of factors, including in an election year how it's going to play politically. And they make these calculations the way the Democrats do about certain labor unions or whatever."

The restrictions are now el exilio's own divisive wedge issue, which fits perfectly into the Republican Party's nationwide strategy of appealing to GOP loyalists rather than targeting the small percentage of voters who are undecided this year. "On the face of it you would think measures that fall so heavily on Cuban Americans would be politically bad for the administration in the run-up to the presidential election," says Bill Leogrande, a Cuba policy expert and dean of the school of public affairs at American University in Washington, D.C. But he points to a well-documented split within el exilio: Newer arrivals have more moderate views on Cuba but vote in far fewer numbers than pre-1980 arrivals, who have more extreme views and vote in greater numbers. "So to mollify the core constituency of the Florida Republican Party, the hardline Cuban Americans, the administration has been willing to sacrifice moderate Cuban Americans," Leogrande observes.

And if the president has infuriated them in the process, it's just not important. "The people who are angry about the restrictions are those who are traditionally least likely to vote," says FIU's Dario Moreno. "Those who are happy with the new policy are those who are more likely to vote. What the mistake could have been is if the restrictions mobilize people that otherwise wouldn't have bothered to vote."

About 500 mobilized Cuban Americans with family on the island demonstrated this past Saturday outside Lincoln Diaz-Balart's district office in West Miami-Dade. Protesters carried signs that read, "The family is sacred" and "Bush: Don't divide the Cuban family." Diaz-Balart was not inside, but the crowd shook their signs anyway and chanted in Spanish: "Where are you, Diaz-Balart? Where are you, Diaz-Balart?" and "Yes I'm going to Cuba! Yes I'm going to Cuba!" One of the protesters, Juan Carlos Herrera, is a 35-year-old computer technician who defected from Cuba four months ago while in Mexico. He left behind a four-year-old son and is frustrated that he can't send him toys or clothes for his upcoming birthday. Herrera also worries about the distress the new rules are inflicting on his 90-year-old grandmother, who lives in Miami, and his father, who remains in Cuba. "In three years a lot could happen," he says. "My grandmother could die without seeing my father again."

But in the Washington war rooms where Bush administration officials are busy laying plans for the president's 2004 campaign, people like Juan Carlos Herrera simply don't matter.

Rigid New Rules

All U.S. citizens and legal residents are now governed by the following rules on traveling or sending remittances and parcels to Cuba:

Tourist travel is still prohibited.

One trip every three years to visit immediate family. Must receive Treasury Department license for each trip. "No additional visits will be authorized." Visits are limited to fourteen days. Traveler may spend $50 per day, plus an additional $50 per trip for transportation within Cuba.

Travelers are limited to 44 pounds of luggage, except for government officials, businesspeople licensed to trade with Cuba, members of licensed religious and humanitarian groups, and journalists.

No "fully hosted" travel permitted.

Travelers can no longer return to U.S. with $100 in Cuban merchandise for personal use.

A maximum of $300 in remittances per three-month period may be sent to an immediate family member (children, spouses, siblings, parents, grandparents, grandchildren). Certain government officials and Communist Party members excluded.

Nongovernmental organizations may apply for special licenses to send money to "Cuban pro-democracy groups, independent civil society groups, and religious organizations." Banks may also apply for special permission.

No other remittances are allowed.

Travelers can carry one $300 remittance for an immediate family member.

Educational visits are allowed with a Treasury Department license but must last at least ten weeks.

College employees and graduate students conducting research may stay for shorter periods. High school students are prohibited from study in Cuba.

Authorized gift items: food, vitamins, medicine, medical supplies and equipment (including hospital supplies and equipment for the handicapped), receive-only AM/FM or shortwave radio equipment, and batteries for same.

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