Bush Steps Up Effort to Destabilize Castro’s Regime

Times Staff Writer

President Bush announced a crackdown on unauthorized travel to Cuba on Friday as he unveiled several new initiatives that he said were designed to hasten the demise of Fidel Castro’s regime.

But critics, including some Republican lawmakers, argued that Bush’s latest efforts to destabilize Castro’s government could prove counterproductive and worsen humanitarian conditions on the island.

In remarks in the Rose Garden, the president also said the United States would increase the number of Cuban immigrants allowed into this country, escalate efforts to communicate directly with the Cuban people and create a high-level commission to develop additional plans to expedite Cuba’s transition to a democracy.

“Clearly, the Castro regime will not change by its own choice. But Cuba must change,” Bush said. “No tyrant can stand forever against the power of liberty because the hope of freedom is found in every heart.”


Bush’s 14-minute speech came on the 135th anniversary of the beginning of the struggle for Cuban freedom, which started with an uprising against colonial rule at a sugar mill near the town of Manzanillo.

Under law, only members of Congress, people traveling for educational or humanitarian purposes, journalists and those with relatives in Cuba are permitted to visit. In 2001, 176,000 Americans went to the island legally, U.S. officials testified to Congress in September.

The only U.S. airports that offer direct flights to Havana are Miami and Los Angeles international airports and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. However, because travelers can also go to Cuba through a third country, such as Canada or Mexico, there “is no way for us to know” how many Americans visit the island illegally, an official from the Department of Homeland Security said.

On Friday, the president said illegal travel to Cuba serves only to “prop up the dictator and his cronies” while perpetuating the misery of the Cuban people. Such tourism, Bush added, also feeds an “illicit sex trade -- a form of slavery, which is encouraged by the Cuban government.”


“This cruel exploitation of innocent women and children must be exposed and must be ended,” he said.

The president’s announcement highlighted the deep divisions in the United States over how best to bring about democracy in Cuba, which Castro has ruled with an iron fist since 1959.

Rather than increasing economic pressure on Havana, some prefer an end to the four-decade-old trade embargo against Cuba, saying that such punitive measures hurt not the island’s elite but the nation’s average citizens.

“After more than 40 years, Castro’s grip on the island is as tight as ever,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a member of the House International Relations Committee. “The Cuban people still can’t openly disagree with their government, they still can’t hold free and fair elections and they still can’t enjoy the benefits of capitalism. At some point, we need to concede that our current approach has failed and try something new.


“If we are serious about undermining Castro and bringing freedom and democracy to that island, why not let Americans travel there with that message?” he added. Flake is the author of a bill that would effectively lift travel restrictions to Cuba. It has been adopted three times by the House, but has not been taken up by the Senate.

Bush’s announcement also aroused in some critics a suspicion that his initiatives are intended more to endear himself to the largely conservative Cuban American community in Florida, a key battleground state in the 2004 presidential election.

Among those who raised that question was Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“President Bush must match his rhetoric on Cuba with strong action -- something he has failed to do in the past,” Lieberman said. “If he once again returns Cuban refugees to Castro’s clutches, for whatever reason, then his call for permitting more Cubans to immigrate will prove hollow. If he again fails to fully fund Radio and TV Marti or increase its transmission capabilities, then his rhetoric about breaking Cuba’s information embargo will prove empty.”


Max J. Castro, a University of Miami sociologist and a prominent newspaper columnist, said Bush’s latest initiatives appeared to be “a response to a lot of criticism and calls from Cuban Americans and others in South Florida” for a tougher stance toward Havana. “It doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to see the connection,” he said.

In the May 2002 “Initiative for a New Cuba,” Bush announced that if Castro instituted far-reaching political reforms, the U.S. would ease its economic sanctions, including travel restrictions, and allow increased humanitarian aid.

“Since I made that offer, we have seen how the Castro regime answers diplomatic initiatives,” Bush said Friday, making no effort to mask his contempt. “The dictator has responded with defiance and contempt, and a new round of brutal oppression that outraged the world’s conscience.”

Bush said the travel exceptions allowed under the current law “are too often used as cover for illegal business travel and tourism, or to skirt restrictions on carrying cash into Cuba.” He vowed: “We’re cracking down on this deception.”


He said he also is ordering federal authorities to target Americans who travel to Cuba illegally through a third country or who sail to Cuba on private vessels in violation of the embargo.

The president gave no details on how the United States would increase the number of legal immigrants from Cuba, which totaled about 11,000 from October 2002 through last July, according to a Department of Homeland Security spokesman. Neither did a White House fact sheet distributed several hours after Bush’s remarks. A Homeland Security official said that he was “not sure if a final decision has been made.”

Bush did say that the government would improve its ability to identify and protect those who face persecution in Cuba and provide them the opportunity to enter the U.S. He said Washington also would seek to publicize safe and legal migration options to Cubans.

The Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba is to be co-chaired by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, who was born in Cuba. “They will draw upon experts within our government to plan for Cuba’s transition from Stalinist rule to a free and open society, to identify ways to hasten the arrival of that day,” Bush said.