Bush Stays Put on Cuba Policy

Times Staff Writer

In a disappointment to some Cuban American activists, the White House has decided after weeks of deliberation that it will not take additional steps to punish Fidel Castro for cracking down on pro-democracy dissidents, officials said Tuesday.

U.S. officials had signaled that President Bush and top aides were likely to announce a toughening of U.S. policy on Tuesday, the 101st anniversary of Cuba’s independence from Spain. Instead, Bush met with a group of Cuban dissidents in the Oval Office to voice his support for pro-democracy efforts, but he unveiled no policy change.

Dictatorships, Bush said in brief remarks, “have no place in the Americas.” He said his hope “is for the Cuban people to soon enjoy the same freedoms and rights as we do.”

A senior administration official, who insisted on anonymity, said the administration continues to consider changes, but “we cannot meet people’s expectation of a certain timetable. We have our own timetable.”


Some anti-Castro Cuban Americans said they feared Bush is losing an important opportunity to increase pressure on the Castro regime.

Although “the president is our ally ... we don’t expect just words, but action,” said Ninoska Perez, director of the Cuban Liberty Council, a strongly anti-Castro group based in Miami.

She said that among Cuban Americans in Florida, “I’m hearing disappointment, for the first time ever.”

Pressure has been building on Bush to take tougher action since March, when Castro’s government arrested 78 pro-democracy dissidents and sentenced them to prison terms of up to 28 years.

The administration has strongly condemned the actions and last week expelled 14 Cuban diplomats based in the United States for “inappropriate and unacceptable activities” -- diplomatic code for spying.

The Cuban Liberty Council and other Cuban American activists had been urging the administration to build pressure on Castro by further restricting both the travel of Cuban Americans to the island and the remittances they send to relatives there. Advocates said that the remittances and travel are a major source of revenue for the regime.

But because many Cuban Americans in Florida rely on travel and remittances to help relatives in Cuba, such steps could divide the community and cost Bush reelection votes in a key state, experts said.

Bush has also been urged to take other, milder actions, such as increasing aid to dissidents, extending the reach of U.S.-sponsored Radio Marti and TV Marti broadcasts, and stepping up efforts to build an international coalition against Castro.

Some Cuba analysts said they believe the White House chose to take no new action because there are few effective policy options available and some of those that do exist could create a political backlash.

Many of the milder measures would not have satisfied the most ardent anti-Castro activists, said Daniel P. Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. He said his interpretation was that “given a choice between an action that some Cuban Americans wouldn’t think was tough enough, and no action, the president decided to make no announcement.”

With the politics of Cuba policy becoming increasingly uncertain, Bush has time and again stopped short of going as far as some Cuban American activists have urged, analysts noted.

Although he has been a bulwark against the efforts of U.S. agricultural interests, liberals and others to lift the controversial 40-year-old embargo on travel to and trade with Cuba, the president also has not agreed to tighten the embargo or taken other tough steps, experts noted.

Bush’s policy “is a mixed bag,” Erikson said. “Much of this is a continuation of the Clinton policy.”

The policy also came under attack from a Cuban American congressman, Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who accused Bush of “continuing a policy of appeasement” by failing to fully enforce the tough laws against the regime already on the books. Among those is the Helms-Burton Act, which entitles U.S. citizens to sue foreign companies for profiting from property confiscated by Cuba.

Despite “enormous pressure from the Cuban American community,” Menendez said, “there’s a huge gulf between the president’s rhetoric and his action. I’m not sure what this administration intends to do, beyond more window dressing.”

At the same time, Bush received support from the Cuban American National Foundation, a group that has been one of the most fiery opponents of Castro but has recently moderated its positions on some issues. The group urges forceful action against the Castro regime but opposes cuts in travel or remittances on humanitarian grounds.

Dennis K. Hays, executive vice president of the group, praised Bush’s approach.

The choices were “a question of hard versus smart. If it’s being hard, but not advancing our interests, that’s not going to do anybody any good,” Hays said.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), one of the leading congressional advocates of lifting the embargo, said he read the White House decision to mean that Bush did not want to risk the protests from Cuban Americans that would have followed new restrictions on travel or remittances.

“This is a recognition that the majority of Cuban Americans believe that our current policy is going in the wrong direction,” he said.

Bush marked Cuban independence day by meeting with 11 former dissidents and political prisoners, who later told reporters that they support the president’s efforts and the embargo and want other countries to join the United States in working to bring about political change on the island.

Ana Lazara Rodriguez, a doctor who spent 19 years in a Cuban prison, said what is important is not that injustices occurred in the past but that they cease now.

“We have to stop that,” she said. “We’re going to have to stand up and say no to Castro.”

Still, Isabel Roque, sister of Marta Beatriz Roque, an imprisoned economist and dissident, said Cubans do not want Americans to go too far.

“We don’t want the Marines to invade our island,” she said.

Mel Martinez, the U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, who accompanied the dissidents, said military action is not being contemplated, despite Castro’s recent warnings to Cubans that the U.S. is planning to invade.

That is “out of the question,” Martinez said.