Depending on the outcome of a debate that President Bush may settle as soon as today, Cuban families themselves may be targeted, and their welfare harmed, by new measures that would prevent Cuban Americans from sending money to help their relatives on the island, or that would reduce the amount of remittances they can lawfully send.
As part of the work of a Cuba policy commission, the Administration is looking for ways to reduce hard currency flows to Cuba on the theory that if Cuban government finances suffer, this will help to bring about a peaceful near-term end to the dictatorship.
The President has few high-impact options. Some of his advisors, and hard-line Miami groups whose support he wants, call for a complete end to family remittances. Other officials seek to maintain current remittance limits of $100 per month per household in Cuba. Press reports indicate that the difference may be split, resulting in a new $50 per month limit.
If that position holds, many Cuban families may have to go on a diet.
Consider the impact of a $50 per month remittance limit on a Havana family of four that lives on one salary of 300 pesos per month (about $12), slightly above the Cuban average. If a cousin sends $50 each month, the family would then have $62 in purchasing power. At a local farmers market, they could add to their state-subsidized food supply by buying one pound of pork per person per week, plus a modest amount of rice, beans, other staples, fruit, and vegetables. This would cost $40, leaving $22. A tube of toothpaste and a box of detergent would cost $5 at a dollar store, a pair of sneakers an additional $12. This would leave $5 for rent, utilities, clothing, transportation, and any other expense. There would be no money for entertainment, a simple appliance, home repair, or capital to start a family business.
If the family faced a major expense, its diet would suffer, or its relatives in America would have to send more money. Indeed, there are numerous ways in which the limits could be evaded by those determined to send their families more than the U.S. government permits.
The measure could therefore have more impact in symbolism than in practice.
The symbolism would be clear: this would be a new sanction imposed squarely on Cuban families in order to achieve the Administration’s goal of changing Cuba’s political order.
Politically, this measure would indicate that the President is not seeking the votes of Cuban American moderates, nor of those who send remittances or who visit their families in Cuba. Instead, he would be playing to the most hard-line part of the Cuban American community, largely those of the first generation, many of whom do not have family in Cuba. The Cuban Liberty Council has called for a complete end to remittances and direct flights to Cuba. One of the Council’s leaders, Ninoska Perez, told the St. Petersburg Times last week that many remittances are “not humanitarian aid,” and are “used for frivolous things like parties and prostitutes.”
In previous Presidential elections, Democratic and Republican candidates have differed little, engaging in a race to the right to capture the hard-line Cuban American vote. Early indications of Senator Kerry’s campaign position on Cuba indicate that this year could be quite different.
The Senator has sent conflicting signals. His legislative record on Cuba largely favors policies of engagement. In interviews with Florida media he has expressed his support for American travel to Cuba; at times he has also touted his toughness on Castro and he claimed, in error, that he had voted in favor of the 1996 Helms-Burton law.
Kerry has yet to speak at length about Cuba, but in an April 18 television appearance he said he would “encourage travel” and remittances and search for a consensus with the entire Cuban American community, including its moderate elements. He also referred to his effort to promote engagement with Vietnam.
If Kerry follows this line, he would be playing precisely to the younger Cuban Americans, and the more recent immigrants, who could be alienated by new limits on remittances, travel, and family visits. He would also be the first national candidate to give Miami moderates real political recognition.
In effect, the candidates would be targeting different sides of a generational split that increasingly defines the Cuban American community, and was illustrated in a Florida International University poll taken last March.
If one uses “younger generation” as shorthand for Cuban Americans who arrived in America during the past 20 years or were born here, and “older generation” for those who immigrated before 1985, the differences are significant.
Sixty-four percent of the younger generation favors unrestricted American travel to Cuba, as opposed to 32 percent of older Cuban Americans. The idea of a national dialogue among Cuban officials, the domestic opposition, and exiles wins the support of 68 percent of the younger generation, and 46 percent of the older. Sixty percent of the younger generation supports full diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana, compared to 30 percent support among the older generation.
The poll shows a complexity of views within the Cuban American community, and at times contradictory views, that mean that neither candidate can count on a political slam-dunk.
But the two generations agree on one thing: younger or older, they both say by a three-to-one margin that a candidate’s position on Cuba is important in determining their vote. The competition is about to begin.
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