Cuban Americans Rush to Visit Kin While They Can

Times Staff Writer

Tough new restrictions imposed by the Bush administration on travel and remittances to Cuba go into effect today, with Cuban Americans sharply divided over whom the crackdown will hurt more -- Fidel Castro or their own loved ones on the island.

“This is a very humanitarian but responsible measure to speed up the transition to democracy in Cuba and protect our national interests against terrorism,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.). “What the president did is cut off money to an anti-American terrorist regime.”

“It’s outrageous,” countered Lisandro Perez, a professor of sociology at Florida International University who predicted that the backlash among fellow Cuban Americans could undermine the traditionally Republican constituency’s support for President Bush.

This week, Cuban Americans by the hundreds jammed Miami International Airport for charter flights to Havana and other Cuban destinations before the rules took effect. Angelina Dominguez, 28, a management assistant from Sunrise, Fla., wept as she said it would probably be the last time she would see her 88-year-old grandmother.


“I’m going to enjoy, because she probably won’t be alive by the time I’m allowed to go again,” Dominguez said. As a special gift for the elderly woman, Dominguez carried a fluffy Ralph Lauren pillow -- an unheard-of luxury on the shortage-plagued island.

The rules outlined by Bush last month limit family visits to the communist-ruled country to once every three years instead of annually. Cuban Americans also will be allowed to visit only immediate family members -- such as parents, grandparents, spouses, siblings and children -- and to stay no more than 14 days. Violators can be fined $7,500.

Cuban Americans, who often supply their relatives with everything from clothing and medicine to toys and disposable diapers, now will have a luggage limit of 44 pounds. They will no longer be allowed to send money to relatives outside their immediate families, and cannot send funds to Cuban Communist Party officials. On the island, American travelers will be allowed to spend a maximum of $50 a day, down from $167.

Cuba’s senior diplomat in Washington, Dagoberto Rodriguez, said in a television interview that the restrictions were a “cruel measure” that would not only punish families, but also have “a very serious impact” on his nation’s faltering economy.


Some Cuban Americans said they doubted the rules would speed the end of Castro’s 45-year dictatorship, the administration’s main policy goal.

“Whatever happens, Castro will eat, and the people won’t,” Julio Lopez said. On Monday morning, the 32-year-old computer programmer accompanied his mother to the airport for her flight to Havana. Teresa Lopez, 52, was carrying clothes and shoes for her 75-year-old mother, as well as a wad of cash to help the woman purchase what goods she can find in Cuban shops.

“It’s not really good, the part that we have to wait for three years to go back and see the family,” Julio said. “It’s a long time if someone is sick.”

In a sign of how deep the fissure has grown, the Cuban American National Foundation -- one of the most influential exile groups in the U.S. -- said in a statement that the changes ran counter to “not only the right but the responsibility of the Cuban exile to help protect the well-being of [his or her] family members.”

Diaz-Balart, the Cuban American lawmaker, said a Bush administration task force headed by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had crafted the restrictions with the aim of pushing Castro and his one-party regime “past the tipping point.”

“He is no longer getting credits” from Western trading partners, Diaz-Balart said. “He doesn’t have the Soviet subsidies any longer. This is not the time to remove the [economic] leverage.”

But Perez, the sociology professor, said that the administration’s motives were purely political and that the real objective was pleasing hard-line elements in the exile community.

“Because of election-year politics, the White House is prepared to do whatever the people it listens to propose,” Perez said. “But there has been a greater reaction, a greater backlash, against this than was anticipated by the people who proposed it.”


One rift that may have widened is the one between Cubans who fled the island shortly after Castro seized power in 1959 and those who left more recently. The earlier arrivals and their descendants often have no immediate family members in Cuba. More recent arrivals usually do.

A poll conducted this year found that Cubans who had immigrated to the United States in the last 20 years were overwhelmingly in favor of unfettered travel to Cuba; most who arrived between 1959 and 1974 backed restrictions.

“There is a growing gulf ... between people who have a lot of money and power and influence and those who don’t, who tend to have come [from Cuba] more recently,” Perez said.

But many Cuban Americans said they held conflicting views, dictated by their heads and hearts.

As she waited with her parents for a flight to Santiago de Cuba, Dominguez endorsed the latest U.S. effort to “hurt that man,” meaning Castro. But she also said she felt a strong sense of duty to help her grandmother live out her last years in comfort. “I’m not going there to do politics,” Dominguez said. “I’m going there to give my grandmother this pillow.”

The restrictions also are likely to hurt Miami-area businesses that arrange travel and parcel shipments to Cuba. According to Susana Perez of Cuba Envios in Hialeah, Cuban Americans now will be permitted to send only food, medicine and $100 a month to close family members. “You can’t send any more clothes or shoes or toiletries,” she said. “No more perfume, toothpaste or soap.”

On Friday, the Treasury Department, which is charged with implementing the regulations, agreed to delay enforcement of them so U.S. residents who were in Cuba under the old rules would have until Aug. 1 to return. That precipitated a last-minute exodus to the island, as Cuban Americans headed there with goods and money.

“We got ready in 24 hours,” Dominguez said. “It was in God’s master plan for us to fly and see our family.”


But Insom Kim, an airport spokeswoman, said about two-thirds of the 15 Cuba charter flights left empty Tuesday, authorized only to pick up passengers headed back to the United States. Two flights organized at the last minute to take hundreds of people to Cuba were scrubbed when clearance could not be obtained from the State Department.

“It’s been a long day,” Kim said Tuesday evening. “We’re trying to cope with the last of the stranded people. Some have been here since last night.”

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this report.