Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Tough regulations on Cuba that took effect yesterday could cost the communist island nearly $1 billion a year while shoring up President Bush’s support among Cuban-Americans, a key Florida constituency in November.

Under the regulations, Americans will be allowed to send up to $1,200 annually only to immediate family in Cuba, but not to cousins, aunts or uncles, as had been allowed. No money can be sent to Fidel Castro’s government or Communist Party officials.

Americans traveling to Cuba will be allowed to carry up to 44 pounds of luggage and $300 in cash, down from the previous limit of $3,000. They can spend no more than $50 a day in Cuba, down from $166.

The restrictions could halve the $1.5 billion Mr. Castro’s regime derives annually from exiles to repress his people, said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fisk, the top U.S. diplomat for Cuba.

Mr. Castro has used the influx of U.S. money to “franchise out a portion of the maintenance of the Cuban people to the exile community,” Mr. Fisk told Reuters.

“The regime has built its reputation on a revolution that claims to provide for the Cuban people,” Mr. Fisk said. “It’s the regime that’s supposed to feed, clothe and provide medical assistance to Cuban people.”

Cuban-Americans now are allowed to visit Cuba once every three years, rather than once a year, and will not be granted visits for “humanitarian” reasons, such as a sick relative.

American boaters no longer will be granted Coast Guard licenses to enter Cuban waters. Since 1996, about 1,200 licenses have been issued, giving boaters unfettered access to Cuban ports.

The tighter restrictions run counter to the sentiment in Congress, where a majority of lawmakers want to open travel to Cuba and ease the 4-decade-old economic embargo. They argue that opening the Cuban market to U.S. tourism would spread images of democracy to the communist island.

The White House says looser restrictions would allow too much money to flow to Cuba. A threatened presidential veto last year killed a congressional plan to end travel restrictions.

Mr. Bush is trying to keep Cuban Americans happy, and that means staying tough on Mr. Castro.

Cuban-Americans in Florida, the decisive state in the 2000 presidential election, went heavily for Mr. Bush. Among Cuban-American voters in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, Mr. Bush took 82 percent of the vote to 12 percent for Al Gore.

Some critics say the new regulations will backfire.

“The new restrictions on travel and payments to families will cause more hunger in Cuba, divide American families from their Cuban relations, and give more ammunition to a government that has always taken strength from America’s preoccupation with driving it from power,” said Sarah Stephens, director of the Freedom to Travel Campaign.

“President Bush should stop aiming weapons of malnutrition at the Cuban people. Using hunger to prompt regime change in Cuba is immoral, and it won’t work,” she said.

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