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Cuba travel limit stirs anger, fear

Many Cuban- Americans worry that newly enacted travel restrictions will make their families suffer even more.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN
Published May 16, 2004

TAMPA - Travel brochures for Cuba boast azure waters and bone-white beaches.

But when Francisco Ramos packs his bags, he's not concerned with sun-tan lotion and bathing trunks.

Instead, he loads up on vitamins and antibiotics for his family.

Ramos, 63, considers himself a life-line for his six siblings left in Cuba.

Ramos is like tens of thousands of Cuban-Americans throughout Florida who yearly ferry clothes, medicine and money to loved ones on the island. Now he worries that President Bush's newly enacted travel restrictions will make his family suffer even more.

"They can buy food, but they don't have money," Ramos said last week waiting for his family to finish shopping in a Tampa market. Aside from medicine, he brings coveted dollars to his relatives in Cuba.

"The pesos are not worth anything," he said.

Bush's changes - principally limiting Cuban-Americans to visiting the island once every three years instead of once a year - are welcomed by hard-line exile groups, who say the money and goods only strengthen Castro's regime. But they have outraged many others.

Tampa's Cubans predict the policy will mean more hardship for their families. A petition addressed to Bush has made its way from Miami to Tampa Envios on Columbus Avenue, a business where Cubans to can arrange travel or send medicine, food or clothes to the island.

"Your recent action regarding Cuba is the most inhumane policy ever conceived," the letter reads. "Come next November, we will remember this blatant disrespect for us ..."

Growing divide

Some Cuban-Americans say Bush is trodding on sacred family bonds for political reasons. They say the policy will block their efforts to feed and clothe family members struggling under Fidel Castro's communist government.

"Without me, they wouldn't eat," said 41-year-old Raul Boucourt outside Florida Bakery about his father and children in Cuba. Boucourt, an electrician, supports them as well as his wife and children in Tampa.

The issue exacerbates the growing divide between older Cubans who fled decades ago and more recent arrivals with fresher ties to the island.

"The people that (support this) don't have family there," Boucourt said.

The issue also could pose thorny political problems for Bush with a group he's trying to court this election year.

"Personally, I think this is just going to backfire," said Cuban-American Maura Barrios, adviser of Cuban studies within the Latin American and Caribbean Studies program at the University of South Florida.

Taking care of their own

For more than 40 years, they waited.

As the number of Cuban-Americans grew in this country, they pushed tough political policies against Fidel Castro and contributed to mostly Republican campaigns to back it up.

But they took care of their own.

Cuban-American remittances to loved ones totaled about $97-million last year, according a recent poll by Florida International University in Miami. Tens of thousands visit each year with boxes of goods.

They line up at the counter at Miami International Airport with coolers, luggage and duffel bags big enough to hold two people, stuffed with medicines and clothes to bring to loved ones.

Some wear multiple pairs of jeans and shirts. The new policy will scale back those trips.

The product of a six-month study and recommendations by a "Free Cuba Commission" headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell, Cuban-Americans can now visit only once every three years instead of once a year. Bush also quadrupled funding for dissidents in Cuba from $7-million to $29-million and ordered the deployment of C-130 planes to beam down anti-Castro messages to Cuba. The policy also bars transfers of money from the United States to members of the Communist Party.

Already, the policies are having an effect. Early last week, just days after Bush's announcements, Cuba's government shut down the island's dollar-only stores, blaming the United States for squeezing its economy. Some managers said the stores were closed while prices were marked up. And last Friday, Castro's regime organized a six-hour protest against the policies by hundreds of thousands of Cubans, who marched past the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana.

Castro's government legalized possession of dollars in 1993 after the fall of the Soviet Union to draw hard currency from increased tourism and family purchases at state stores. Since then, the government has sold more goods at the dollar stores while the Cuban ration book of items available in pesos has shrunk.

Tampa attorney Ralph Fernandez, whose clients have included former Cuban political prisoners, said he agrees with Bush's new policies.

The infusion of money and goods from Cuban-Americans ultimately flow into Castro's hands and keep him in power, he said. "Whenever (Castro) enjoys dollars, he exports terrorism. We need to make sure he has limited funds or else he will use it as he has used it in the past," Fernandez said, referring to Castro's previous military support for leftist revolutions around the world.

Fernandez said a political backlash against Bush was unlikely because the more recent arrivals angered by the changes can't yet vote and won't contribute to political campaigns like the more hard-line Cuban-Americans.

"I find it offensive that some Cuban-Americans can come as political exiles or as refugees then two years later can go back to visit," he said. "I think that is immoral and untruthful."

No democratic change

Silvio Barrio agrees Cuban-Americans help keep Castro in power.

"If you don't send money anymore, we can get rid of Castro," said the 55-year-old Tampa man who left Cuba and his siblings behind two dozen years ago.

But Damian Fernandez (no relation to Ralph), who heads the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami, said family oriented Cubans are not going to sit by and watch their loved ones suffer.

"I think Cuban-Americans are going to react by saying, "Don't mess with my family,"' said Damian Fernandez, whose book on the topic is titled Cuba and the Politics of Passion. "You can mess with the (Castro) government, but don't mess with my grandma and cousins."

He predicts resistance to the new travel measures, which also further restrict how much money Cuban-Americans can spend during a visit. Given the strong family ties among Cubans, he said the policies could cause many Cuban-Americans to vote for the Democratic candidate.

The measures won't bring about democratic change, Damian Fernandez said. For that to happen, people need to organize, which is difficult to do in a "police state."

Instead, more hungry people will take to rafts and come to the United States, he said.

"We believe in being tough on governments but soft on people," he said.

To working Cubans who support families back home, the measures make no sense, said Armando Ramirez, president of Tampa Envios on Columbus Drive. The United States allows the sale of agricultural goods to Cuba, as long as the products are paid for in cash. But how can Cuba buy food without dollars from their relatives?

"Who is going to buy the rice?" he asked.

One day last week, 26 people signed the protest form to Bush, said Ramirez, who has personal and economic stakes in the policy shift. His business stands to take a financial hit under the policy, and he also has his father to consider.

If he can't travel every year to see his sick 80-year-old father, Ramirez said, his support for the president is over. "We won't vote for Bush."

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

[Last modified May 16, 2004, 01:00:38]


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