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May 7, 2004

Bush Tightens Cuba Embargo

by Jim Lobe

Six months before an election in which the state of Florida may again play a decisive role, U.S. President George W Bush on Thursday announced new measures to tighten the 44-year-old US embargo on Cuba and hasten what he called "democratic change" on the Caribbean island.

Most of the measures, which were urged by an interagency commission that released its 500-page report of specific policy prescriptions, are designed to reduce the flow of money and visitors, including Cuban-Americans, from the United States to Cuba.

But they also included using up to 59 million dollars over the next two years for public diplomacy, overcoming the jamming of US government radio and television broadcasts to Cuba, and providing support for "democracy-building activities," including helping pro-democracy activists and supporting family members of dissidents who have been imprisoned by the government of President Fidel Castro.

On the other hand, the administration decided against reducing the 1,200-dollar-a-year ceiling on remittances by Cuban-Americans here to their family members in Cuba, a step that was widely anticipated.

It was decided at the last moment that such a move risked alienating a significant part of the Cuban-American community, according to one administration official. But at the same time, the administration capped visits by Cuban-Americans to family members to one every three years, a step that some warned could also hurt Bush's popularity in the community.

"It is a strategy that says 'we're not waiting for the day of Cuban freedom, we are working for the day of freedom in Cuba',” Bush said in a statement during a short meeting with members of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which was coordinated by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega.

Critics of Bush's Cuba policy denounced the plan as politically motivated and potentially counterproductive.

"It's a farce, pure political theater," said Wayne Smith of the Center for International Policy (CIP), who served as head of the US Interest Section in Havana under former President Jimmy Carter (1977–81). "It will be a nuisance, but it's not going to have a significant effect."

"Obviously, we support the expansion of democracy in Cuba," said Rachel Farley, Cuba program officer at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), "but history has shown that assistance to dissidents puts them at risk of being painted by the Cuban government as subversives working with the US This type of assistance helped land 75 dissidents in jail in March, 2003," she added.

Bush, whose brother Jeb is Florida's governor, has long sided with hard-line anti-Castro elements in the Cuban-American community, and has strongly opposed recent efforts by majorities in both houses of Congress to ease the embargo by, among other things, scrapping all restrictions on US citizens who want to visit the island.

US agricultural and pharmaceutical exporters and Cuba activists had succeeded by the end of the presidency of Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, in poking two big holes in the embargo by approving exemptions on sales of food and medical supplies.

Last year's crackdown by Castro against dissidents, almost all of who had been publicly courted and supported by the US Interest Section in Havana, that the effort to loosen the embargo has lost steam and the recent diplomatic tiff between Cuba and Mexico has encouraged the administration to think that Castro's regime is more isolated and fragile than ever.

Bush officials had already taken a number of steps to tighten enforcement of the embargo, notably by prosecuting individuals known to have traveled to Cuba without a Treasury Department license and denying licenses to certain kinds of travelers, notably students, who had previously been permitted to go.

Under the moves announced Thursday, those kinds of restrictions will be further tightened; one official said, for example, that educational licenses will be even more difficult to obtain. Similarly, the administration said it will step up enforcement and "sting operations" against "mules" who carry money or other supplies to Cuba illegally. In that connection, baggage limits will also be strictly enforced.

More controversially, the administration will limit family visits to Cuba to one trip every three years under a specific license to visit only immediate family members, a classification that is narrower than previous policies. It will also reduce the authorized amount Cuban-Americans or other US visitors can pay for food and lodging while in Cuba – from 164 dollars a day to only 50 dollars a day.

The administration also said it will work harder through international organizations, notably the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the International Labor Organization, to help dissidents with training or other kinds of support.

Of the 59 million dollars the administration intends to commit to "democracy-promoting" activities in Cuba, up to 36 million dollars will be allocated for the support of dissidents and their families, and "to help youth, women and Afro-Cubans take their rightful place in the pro-democracy movement."

Up to 18 million dollars will be devoted to ensuring regular airborne broadcasts into Cuba of Radio and Television Marti through the use of C-130 aircraft that will fly over international waters close to the island.

Another five million dollars will be used for "public-diplomacy efforts" to disseminate information abroad about Cuba's human rights record, its alleged espionage and subversion against other countries and its "harboring" of terrorists.

Noriega told reporters Wednesday that Washington will try to enlist other countries in the same or similar efforts.

But Smith said all of those steps would likely make little difference, noting that of two million tourists who visited Cuba last year, only 10 percent were US citizens, and most of them were Cuban-Americans who were still likely to travel there. Per diem limits on food and lodging mean, "you may not be able to stay at the Hotel Nacional," he added.

WOLA's Farley suggested the new measures will also add to the administrative burdens of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Controls (OFAC), which is also responsible for tracking the financial networks of the al-Qaeda terrorist group and former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"Now OFAC only has four employees tracking terrorist financial networks, while nearly two dozen track violators of the Cuban embargo for unlicensed travel or bringing back too many cigars," she noted, adding, "the enforcement of these new measures will inevitably detract from pursuing our real enemies."

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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