Cuban-American votes aren't a lock for the GOP this year
HAVANA -- Cuban-Americans, traditionally a strong voting bloc for the Republican presidential candidate because of their anti-Castro sentiments, are anything but a guarantee this year.
Policies imposed by the Bush administration in June, which were aimed at toppling Fidel Castro and shoring up support for the president's re-election, appear to have backfired in both respects.
The policies -- restricting the ability of Cuban-Americans to visit and send money to their families -- have served as a way for the Cuban dictator to blame the U.S. for his country's economic woes.
Rather than increasing support for Bush at home with Cuban-Americans, the policies have made for bitter divisions.
"A lot of Cuban-Americans, even those who were Republicans before, are so angry that they don't want to see Bush anymore, not even in pictures," maintains Zenaida Perez, a North Port resident who came to the United States from Cuba in 1990.
A poll conducted by the William C. Velasquez Institute in July -- the entity that Nielsen Media Research leans on to gauge Latino opinions -- showed Bush's support among Cuban-Americans in Florida fell to 66 percent from 82 percent during the 2000 election. The poll was conducted shortly after the Bush administration imposed the restrictions.
The Velasquez Institute has not done a more recent poll, but the company's president, Antonio Gonzalez, has no reason to believe the numbers have changed.
"If anything, the divisions have intensified," Gonzalez said. "From everything I've heard and everyone I've spoken to, the split among Cuban-Americans continues to be a real concern for the president."
With more than 400,000 Cuban-Americans registered to vote in Florida, a swing of 16 percent represents about 65,000 votes, a significant number in a state that pundits think could be a close race and a key to the White House.
President Bush is fighting hard to win back Cuban-Americans. He is airing television ads in Florida accusing Sen. John Kerry of being soft on Castro. The ads say Kerry and liberals in Congress "don't understand what a dictator is."
Gonzalez, however, doesn't think Bush will make much headway with Cuban-Americans irritated by the imposition of travel limits.
Controlling the flow
Imposed on June 30, the restrictions allow Cuban-Americans to visit family members once every three years instead of once every 12 months.
They can spend only $50 per day compared with $167 in the past, and they are prohibited from providing items such as clothing, seeds, fishing equipment and personal hygiene products, including soap.
The limits are just part of a broad policy toward Cuba unveiled by the Bush administration in May, but they have proven to be the most controversial aspects of the policy.
Administration officials estimated that Cuba-Americans send $1.5 billion each year in cash and goods to their families in the Communist country. They reasoned the money was finding its way into government coffers and they determined to shut off the supply. The idea was to trigger an economic crisis that would eventually force the 78-year-old Castro from power.
"Cubans had, in effect, established a commuter relationship with the island -- living and working part-time here and living and vacationing part-time there -- all the while serving as conduits of hard currency to the regime," said Dan Fisk, the Bush administration's deputy assistant secretary of western hemisphere affairs. "Now there are controls."
In a speech to the Cuban-American Veterans Association earlier this month, Fisk predicted that the restrictions would deprive Cuba of $500 million in 2004 alone.
Ignacio Sanchez, a Washington lawyer and founding member of the Cuban Liberty Council, acknowledged that the restrictions have created economic hardship, but argued that they are necessary so that Cubans can achieve greater freedom in the future.
"Is the greater good for Cubans to be destined to live forever under the current system, or to achieve freedom and liberty?" asked Sanchez, whose organization pushed for the restrictions.
Sanchez said most people in the United States think the embargo, first imposed on Cuba in 1963, has failed to force change on the island. But he maintained that the embargo never had a chance to succeed until the 1990s because the Soviet Union was subsidizing the Cuban economy to the tune of $5 billion a year.
With the Soviet demise in 1991 and the end of the subsidies, Castro had no choice but to open the Cuban economy, Sanchez said. He permitted individuals to operate bed-and-breakfast hotels, small restaurants and to produce agricultural products that could be sold through farmers markets at free-market prices.
He also allowed foreign investors to sink money into large hotel projects and other ventures.
Castro's retreat from state-controlled Communist . . . policies allowed Cuba to claw its way out of the deepest recession in its history. But before things started getting better, they got a lot worse, Sanchez said.
Hundreds of thousands of Cubans attempted to drift to the U.S. on makeshift rafts, and tens of thousands died in the process. That tragedy provided Castro with an opportunity to raise money to support his regime and to put a stop to opening the economy, Sanchez said.
Through negotiations with the Clinton administration, Castro secured an agreement for the U.S. to provide entry visas to 25,000 Cubans each year. They are selected through a lottery system run by the U.S., but Castro holds the ultimate veto on who can go, Sanchez said.
The dictator selects the ablest Cubans and has refused to grant exit visas to more frail members of their families, Sanchez said, ensuring that the immigrants will send money back to the island for family.
The Castro government then sucks up that money by maintaining shortages of basic goods and forcing Cubans to buy supplies at government-owned dollar stores at jacked-up prices.
"The in-flows of dollars took the pressure off Castro to change the system," Sanchez said. "We're now trying to reverse that mechanism to where the pressure will start working again."
An economic crisis
There is no question that the restrictions have succeeded in one respect: Far fewer Cuban-Americans are traveling to the island, and there is much less money circulating in the system.
Tessie Aral, chief executive of Miami-based ABC Charters, said U.S. airlines provided 2,000 seats from Miami to Havana each week before the restrictions went into effect. They now offer 700 seats. Where occupancy was about 85 percent pre-restrictions, it is now 70 percent.
That means about 1,200 fewer U.S. citizens are traveling to Havana, and that's just Havana.
U.S. citizens had also been flying from Miami to other Cuban cities. In addition, as many as 40,000 had been entering the country illegally from third countries, but the Bush administration has made illegal entry more difficult as well.
With fewer U.S. citizens arriving and spending their dollars in Cuba, the Cuban government has been deprived of funds needed to pay for critical imports such as food and oil, and has responded to the crisis in several ways.
Earlier this week, the government ruled that U.S. dollars would no longer be accepted at many businesses on the island. Cubans have rushed to convert their greenbacks to pesos, permitting the government to quickly soak up hard currency.
At the same time, the government is more strictly enforcing tax laws on private businesses.
One entrepreneur, who rents rooms in his Havana house to foreigners, said he used to pay a $300 up-front fee every month for the permission to rent one room in his house. But he often rented more than one room without telling government officials in order to have a better chance of paying the tax from the $20 per person rate he is permitted to charge.
Now he's afraid to skirt the law, and it will be more difficult for him and other bed-and-breakfast owners to stay in business. He will have less money coming in, so less money to give to members of his family.
Even as life becomes more difficult for the average Cuban, there is little evidence the malaise will impact Castro's 45-year hold on power.
The fact that Castro can blame the country's problems on the restrictions imposed by the Bush administration may actually cause the Cuban people to rally around him.
Through his control of the media, Castro is pounding home the message that Bush is responsible for their suffering. A government-sponsored television and billboard campaign literally calls Bush an S.O.B. for his "genocidal" embargo policy.
Conversations with Cubans in Havana and other communities reveal that some hold Castro's failed Communist policies responsible for their problems, but the overwhelming majority blame Bush.
Perez, the North Port resident, is worried about her 72-year-old mother who lives in the Lawton district of Havana.
"People like my mother are not getting food and medicine," Perez said. "Old people in general are experiencing more stress, both physical and mental."
Perez thinks the old guard, anti-Castro forces in Miami, many with no family remaining in Cuba, are unconcerned for people like her mother and focused only on revenge.
Silvia Wilhelm, co-founder of the Cuban-American Commission for Family Rights, said the new restrictions have no hope of spurring another revolution.
"We have to accept that Castro is in power. He has won the battle," Wilhelm said. "Our embargo policy has not caused the Cuban people to revolt in 45 years and it's not going to happen now."
"Closed societies don't change," she said. "The more pressure you put on them, the more closed they become. And rather fomenting a revolt, punishment imposed from outside will cause people to rally around the flag of nationalism and against the enemy."