Cuba travel restrictions continue to spark protests
By Madeline Baró Diaz
More than a month after the Bush administration implemented more stringent rules on family travel to Cuba and packages sent to the island, Cuban-Americans on both sides of the issue are increasingly making their feelings known.
Opponents of new U.S. Treasury Department rules that allow Cuban-Americans to visit family on the island only once every three years have been conducting weekly demonstrations. During the past month, they have protested at the offices of U.S. representatives Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and at Hialeah's City Hall.
At 11 a.m. today, the Christian Women's Association in Defense of Cuban Families is hosting a gathering at Miami City Hall, where they hope to drop off a letter urging the mayor and city commissioners to pass a resolution opposing the new measures.
"These whole policy measures are in a very difficult position to defend legally, constitutionally," said Alfredo Lopez, who has participated in the group's demonstrations and was serving as their spokesman on Friday.
Meanwhile, at José Martí Park in Hialeah, Vigilia Mambisa, a Cuban exile group that favors strong measures against the Cuban government, will hold a voter registration drive it hopes will help return President Bush to the White House.
"We also supported President Bush in 2000 because President Bush is on the side of the Cuban community," said Miguel Saavedra Jr., president of Vigilia Mambisa. "We are helping him."
Cuban-American voters are expected to be important in the November presidential election, as they figured prominently in Bush's 537-vote victory in Florida during the disputed 2000 election, which won him the presidency. Although an estimated 80 percent of Cuban-Americans voted for Bush four years ago, recent polls have shown that the president's support in the community has declined to about 60 percent.
As of June 30, Cuban-Americans are allowed to visit Cuba only once every three years and may visit only spouses, parents, children, grandparents, grandchildren and siblings. They can no longer send items like clothing or soap.
The tough new restrictions made many Cuban-Americans angry. Lopez is upset the U.S. government no longer allows him to visit great aunts, aunts, uncles and cousins on the island as often as twice a year. Now, those relatives do not count as immediate family.
"I think that so many persons have been affected by this, and they consider the government to have no right to tell them when they can see their families," he said. "This could very well mean defeat for the president."
Saavedra disagrees. He thinks the Bush administration remains generous with Cuban-Americans, permitting them to travel to Cuba and send up to $100 per month to their family members there.
Saavedra's group is hoping to use the political clout of the Cuban-American community to ask the president to enact even stronger measures against the island nation.
In particular, they want Bush to activate provisions of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act that would allow U.S. citizens to sue people and companies that use their confiscated property in Cuba.
"We don't want conversations," Saavedra said. "What we want are stronger sanctions."
But Saavedra conceded that even if Bush does not take action immediately, he and other Cuban-Americans will vote for Bush because of his stance against Cuba.
Lopez said, however, that he knows undecided Cuban-American voters who likely will vote for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry because of the Cuba measures.
"They were undecided, and this decided them," Lopez said.
Madeline Baró Diaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 305-810-5007.
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