The Cuba policy remarks President Bush delivered last Friday were more notable for their embrace of Miami’s most hard-line, first-generation segment of the Cuban exile community than for their relatively modest substance.
First-generation exiles, grouped today in organizations such as the Cuban Liberty Council (CLC), are the most vociferous proponents of tough economic sanctions against Cuba. Most oppose any dialogue with the Cuban government. Seeking “change not transition,” they disdain the Varela Project, a petition drive conceived by Christian Liberation Movement leader Oswaldo Paya, because it uses the Cuban constitution’s citizen initiative provisions to press for a political and economic opening and new elections under a new electoral law.
Many Cuban Americans of the first generation oppose links with Cuba, even at the family level; the CLC opposes all travel to Cuba and calls for a ban on financial support from Cubans abroad to their families in Cuba today. Some Miami commentators refer to those Cuban Americans who visit their families on the island as a “parallel” exile community.
And they oppose the migration accords that President Clinton negotiated with Cuba and that President Bush decided to uphold. They strongly criticized the Bush Administration’s decision to repatriate Cuban migrants who commandeered a Cuban research vessel in July in an attempt to reach the United States. Because they are reliable single-issue voters, their anger caused a political problem for the Bush White House as it looks ahead to next year’s re-election campaign.
The President repeated two actions that he took when he faced similar discontent in 2001. Then, he announced a “policy review” that eventually produced only modest initiatives. Last week, he named a commission composed of government officials, led by the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, that will plan for a Cuban transition and seek ways to make it arrive sooner, and will produce recommendations in six months.
As he did in July 2001 and May 2002, the President announced last week that he would strengthen embargo enforcement. He said federal agents would be “strengthening re-enforcement” of travel restrictions, and the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would inspect “all” travelers to Cuba as they depart and as they return — a signal that Cuban Americans, who have faced no penalties to date for iolations of regulations governing travel and delivery of family remittances, may now be scrutinized like other travelers.
One purpose of the inspections will be to ensure that travelers do not carry excessive amounts of cash to Cuba. It is not clear how stepped-up inspections of travelers will enforce these limits, especially because the Administration relaxed them last March. Travelers are free to carry up to $3,000 per person for delivery to Cuban households in the form of remittances, and to spend unlimited amounts for expenses related to the delivery of those remittances.
Additionally, the Department of Homeland Security, the new super-agency designed to bolster defenses against terrorism, will dedicate “intelligence and investigative resources” to nab Americans who travel to Cuba through third countries.
The President also restated a commitment to delivering information to Cuba, through the Miami-based Radio and TV Marti and other means.
Notably, the President did not take steps long urged by the CLC and Cuban-American members of Congress such as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: imposing new sanctions against foreign nationals under the Helms-Burton law, abrogating the U.S.-Cuba migration accords, or ending all family remittances and travel to Cuba.
To compensate, he announced that the United States would “increase the number of new Cuban immigrants we welcome every year,” presumably beyond the 20,000 immigrant visas provided in the migration accords. This initiative plays well in Miami, but it works against the goal of promoting political change in Cuba because it focuses the minds of discontented Cubans on the goal of leaving their country rather than changing it.
Pointedly, the President made no mention of the Varela Project. He praised three “brave dissidents” in Cuba, two of whom oppose the Varela project. He did not praise Oswaldo Paya, who one week earlier took the dramatic step of delivering 14,000 new signatures to Cuba’s National Assembly.
President Bush also engaged in some hyperbole that appeals to the hard-line constituency. He implied that Americans travel illegally to Cuba to vacation at beach resorts; this surely occurs in some cases, but it’s just as surely the case that most Americans who travel to Cuba do so for reasons other than to seek a typical Caribbean beach vacation. They explore Cuban cities, colonial architecture, and nature areas, and have extensive interaction with Cuban people.
The President said that “our country must understand” that hotel bills, paid in dollars, result in wages paid in “worthless pesos” to hotel workers. In fact, while Cuba’s peso is not a convertible currency, Cubans use pesos every day to buy food, pay utility bills, and obtain services from government entities and private entrepreneurs.
The dollar-to-peso swap that the President cites is a standard critique of the worker compensation system in joint ventures between foreign investors and Cuban entities. It is of limited relevance in the hotel industry, where only one in eight hotel rooms is part of a joint venture.
Nonetheless, it tells only part of the story of compensation in the joint ventures themselves. Through interviews with workers, Lexington has documented that in mining, hotel, manufacturing, telecommunications, and other joint ventures, Cuban workers are paid dollar bonuses tied to productivity. A central fact of Cuba’s labor market is that Cuban workers covet jobs in joint ventures because of these bonuses, and they want to work in the tourism industry because of the dollar income they earn from tips.
The President also claimed, without elaboration, that “most goods and services produced in Cuba are still reserved for the political elites.”
Reaction to the President’s speech was varied.
In Cuba, a leading dissident, Vladimiro Roca, took exception to the notion that a U.S. commission might plan Cuba’s transition. “We Cubans are the ones to decide about the transition,” he said. “We are the ones to decide how we are going to do it.”
The President’s speech did not seek to build broad support for his Cuba policy. It ignored many opposition figures in Cuba who oppose U.S. sanctions, large parts of the Cuban American community who favor engagement, and a growing element of the Republican party, which either wants to reduce sanctions such as the travel ban, or to debate the wisdom of the overall policy. For example, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar this month called for a broad debate on Cuba policy and for ending the travel ban, “at the appropriate time,” in order to “let more ideas flow into the country.”
It remains to be seen how well the speech will work with its target constituency. Hard-line Cuban Americans applauded the speech and the Cabinet-level attention to the Cuba issue; but some expressed concern that there could be a gap between rhetoric and policy. The new commission buys the Administration time, and initiatives that fill in the blanks of the President’s speech can earn new political credit.
But pressures on the Administration are likely to continue because Miami’s discontent owes less to the ins and outs of the policy debate than to the fact that Fidel Castro has remained in power for so many years. For the President’s target audience, as long as that situation continues, no policy is tough enough.
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