U.S. action after Cuba crackdown debated

Walter Lippmann walterlx at enet.cu
Mon May 5 23:04:05 MDT 2003


The Miami Herald
Posted on Mon, May. 05, 2003
U.S. action after Cuba crackdown debated
Florida reaction a concern for '04
BY TIM JOHNSON
tjohnson at herald.com

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration has compiled several
options -- ranging from mild action to confrontation -- in
reaction to Cuba's recent offensive to smash the
pro-democracy forces on the island.

The most radical options would virtually dare Fidel Castro's
regime to unleash a new rafter exodus across the Florida
Straits and risk military hostilities with the United
States, although most observers expect the Bush
administration to settle on a much more moderate approach.

Senior Bush administration officials say the White House
will soon announce measures in response to Cuba's arrests of
about 75 pro-democracy activists since mid-March.

The repression by the Castro regime virtually erased a small
but growing civic opposition. Following an island-wide
dragnet, which led to summary trials and jail terms of six
to 28 years for the activists, National Security Advisor
Condoleezza Rice solicited memos from several senior Bush
administration officials for options on U.S. action. The
internal debate has been spirited, according to several
officials.

No final decision has been made, the officials said. A major
concern is to avoid steps that could harm President Bush's
chances of winning Florida, a linchpin state, in his
reelection bid next year.

Measures under active consideration, sources said, include:

• Reducing staffing levels at the U.S. Interests Section in
Havana. Such a move would force Cuba to reciprocate with a
reduction of diplomatic staff in Washington.

• Suspending the 30 or so weekly charter flights that carry
exiles on humanitarian visits to Cuba.

• Placing new limits on remittances that Cuban Americans may
send to relatives on the island.

• Suspending export licenses to U.S. companies selling
agricultural goods to Cuba.

• Tightening existing restrictions on travel to Cuba. Last
year, an estimated 176,000 U.S. citizens visited the island,
mostly for family visits allowed by the Treasury Department,
which regulates travel to nations hostile to the United
States.

''Everything is being looked at,'' one senior official said.

Some outside experts suggest the best course of action may
be to do little -- leaving Cuban officials in post-Iraq
jitters, unsettled by the route the Bush administration
might take.

Others note that the crackdown has triggered European action
against the Castro regime, broadening a decades-old shouting
match between Havana and Washington into a new arena. Last
week, the European Union held up Cuba's request to join the
Cotonou Agreement, a preferential pact that provides
beneficial trade terms and development assistance to former
European colonies.

''When they crack down like this, it seems like we should do
something. But maybe not,'' said Susan Kaufman Purcell, vice
president of the Council of the Americas, a business group
based in New York.

Others expect the White House to announce tougher measures
on Cuba by May 20, the anniversary of Cuban independence, or
sooner.

As officials look at the pros and cons of each option,
however, it is difficult to find steps that don't have
drawbacks, several observers and officials said.

On the issue of remittances and family visits to the island,
Cuban Americans are permitted to send $1,200 to family
members and make one humanitarian visit a year.

The remittances are an economic lifeline for the Castro
regime, sending anywhere from $400 million to $1 billion in
foreign exchange to the island.

''It is the single largest source of foreign exchange for
the Cuban government,'' said John S. Kavulich, president of
the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a nonpartisan
business group.

The remittances benefit as many as 30 percent of Cuba's 11
million citizens.

Restricting remittances would hurt the Castro government --
but also impose suffering on average Cubans and limit the
independence of pro-democracy activists. The Cuban-American
community is divided over any new limits, even as spokesmen
say existing restrictions are widely flouted.

''There are people who go down 30 times a year, and they
have bulging suitcases and five hats,'' said Dennis Hays, a
vice president of the Cuban American National Foundation, an
exile advocacy group.

Some believe that announcing a cutback on remittances would
be merely symbolic.

''I think it's unenforceable,'' said a congressional staff
member who watches Cuba policy closely. ``Are they going to
strip-search people at Miami International? No.''

If the White House were to end charter flights to Havana,
Cuban exiles would likely travel to third countries, such as
Mexico or Jamaica, to travel to Havana, slowing visits only
marginally.

''In effect, we'd be giving more passengers to Cubana,'' the
staff member said, referring to the state-owned airline that
carries tourists from destinations in the Caribbean and
Latin America to Havana.

Some observers say they expect the White House to announce
action to overcome jamming of U.S.-operated Radio and TV
Martí, issue a resounding call for regime change of Cuba's
''cynical tyrant'' and impose a lengthy review for any
application for trade and travel to the island.

Within the administration, though, a few officials advocate
a more confrontational approach with Castro.

'They say, `Let's push harder.' If that precipitates a Cuban
attempt at repeating Mariel, then some of them say, 'bring
it on,' '' said one Washington-based analyst, who spoke on
condition of anonymity.

During the Mariel boatlift in 1980, 125,000 Cubans crossed
the Florida Straits. In 1994, amid severe economic crisis,
Castro allowed another 30,000 or so rafters to leave the
island.

Hays said calls for inviting an intense crisis are limited.

''There are very, very few who are advocating a military
solution to this situation,'' he said.

Any action that might provoke a new boatlift could be a
high-stakes gamble -- for both the Castro regime and the
Bush administration.

Any exodus of rafters from Cuba could trigger a similar
exodus from Haiti, leading to political and economic havoc
in the state. Florida, a critical state in the 2000
presidential election, is even more critical in 2004. It has
gained two votes -- to 27 -- in the Electoral College system
that determines the presidency.

''[Castro would] be quite foolhardy to mess with a resolute
George W. Bush,'' said Ana Navarro, an advisor to Florida
Gov. Jeb Bush. ``The administration has taken care of one
tyrant already. I don't think they would vacillate about
taking care of another one.''






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