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Entangled in spending bill, rules on travel to Cuba

By Lizette Alvarez

New York Times

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 04:45 a.m. HST, Dec 16, 2011



MIAMI » More than two years after President Barack Obama made it easier for Cuban-Americans to visit and send money to relatives in Cuba, Congress on Thursday remained mired in last-minute wrangling over a spending bill that would restrict contact with the island once again.

"That's got to be fixed," said a White House official, adding that the White House was not willing to accept "the president's foreign policy imperative" being overturned through a spending bill.

The reaction among Cuban-Americans in Miami was similar. Since restrictions were loosened in 2009, family visits, money transfers and shipments of goods to people in Cuba have boomed. This year nearly 400,000 people, almost all of them Cuban-Americans, are expected to have visited Cuba by the end of the year.

The measure, if passed, would not only disrupt travel to Cuba but, some say, would also dampen a budding opposition movement on the island. Cubans, particularly the young, have been emboldened by the visits and the shipment of goods, including laptops, cellphones, computer memory devices and other items that allow Cubans to run small private businesses. These businesses are now permitted by the Cuban government.

"It would be a tremendous, tremendous setback," said Pepe Hernandez, the president of the Cuban American National Foundation, which provides support to the anti-Castro movement in Cuba.

The measure was attached to a must-pass Treasury Department spending bill and appeared to be the final stumbling block in gaining approval for an omnibus bill to finance the federal government.

If the bill remains intact, it will restrict what is currently unlimited travel by Cuban-Americans to once every three years and disallow visits by extended-family members -- cousins, aunts and uncles. It would also cap remittances to Cuba at $1,200 a year. The measures are identical to those imposed by President George W. Bush during his administration.

"Part of the issue here is family reunification," said Rep. Jose E. Serrano, a New York Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee who opposes the measure, which was drafted by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla. "We are breaking families up."

Diaz-Balart has said that existing travel and cash transfer policies serve only to enrich the Castro government. He argued that Washington should not reward the Cuban government, particularly in light of its recent crackdown on dissidents and the imprisonment of Alan Gross, an American who was sentenced to 15 years in prison after being convicted of crimes against the Cuban state for distributing satellite telephone equipment to Jewish groups in Havana.

With an election looming next year, it was an open question whether Cuban-American hard-liners, who vote in large numbers and make sizable campaign contributions, would succeed. Support for tighter restrictions among Cubans in Miami has waned considerably in the past five years and most of them support Obama's move in 2009 to change policy.

There is a growing consensus that the United States' five-decade trade embargo against Cuba has not succeeded in weakening the Castro government.

Ernesto Morales Licea, a journalist who arrived from Cuba 10 months ago and now works for a Spanish-language television program here, said the visits, the money and the goods from the United States had empowered Cubans to speak out for one reason: They no longer depend on the government to survive.

"A Cuban with money from outside the government is a Cuban who has independence, the independence to talk," Morales said. "In this moment, where civil society is growing so quickly, it's a strategic mistake," he added, referring to the proposed travel restrictions.

There is another reason why limiting travel would be counterproductive, he said. Pope Benedict XVI is planning to go to Cuba in March, a visit that is expected to stoke public antigovernment demonstrations on the island. A flood of Cuban-American visitors would only encourage that further, he said.

On a more practical level, changes in travel rules would throw holiday travel plans into disarray. Would Cuban-Americans planning to visit over Christmas be barred from the island? What would happen to the hundreds of tickets already sold by charter companies? Typically, spending bills go into effect when they are signed.

For Carlos Garcia, a financial planner whose parents came to the United States from Cuba in 1962, a return to the old rules would have immediate repercussions. He is planning to see his 4-year-old son in Cuba on Dec. 30, his fourth visit of the year. The idea of being able to see him only once every three years, he said, "is devastating."

Like most Cuban-Americans who travel regularly to Cuba, he would still go but would resort to travelling illegally via a third country, he said. It would cost more, he said, and force him to break the law.

"We talk about family values," he said. "This goes totally against what we believe, in my opinion." He added: "All politics aside, we have implemented a 53-year-old policy that has not worked and all it has done is separate thousands of families."

The restrictions would also have a considerable impact on the charter companies in South Florida that are licensed to fly to Cuba. The increase in the number of visitors to the island has allowed them to open new offices and add more flights. This year, cities like Tampa, Chicago and San Juan, Puerto Rico, began flying to Cuba for the first time.

"This is the peak moment for trips to Cuba," said Armando Garcia, the owner of Marazul charters in Miami. "We expect between 35,000 to 40,000 to travel there in the month of December. It will create chaos."

He said his company already had contracts and tickets out for travel extending into early April.

"We will be gravely affected," Garcia added.






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