GOP lawmakers most familiar with Cuba criticized President Obama’s decision Monday to allow more travel by Cuban-Americans to the island, warning that it could end up buttressing the island’s ailing Communist regime with a huge infusion of American dollars.
The criticism ran the gamut across the GOP, though, as some lawmakers recognized that many Cuban-Americans long to visit families and help loved ones with medicine, food and other needs.
Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla. and Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., called Obama’s move a “serious mistake” and a reward to a dictatorship that has recently increased its repression of pro-democracy activists. Besides lifting the travel restrictions, Obama said he would allow Cuban-Americans to transfer money to relatives in Cuba.
“President Obama has committed a serious mistake by unilaterally increasing Cuban-American travel and remittance dollars for the Cuban dictatorship,” the two congressmen, who are brothers, said in a joint statement.
“Unilateral concessions to the dictatorship embolden it to further isolate, imprison and brutalize pro-democracy activists, to continue to dictate which Cubans and Cuban-Americans are able to enter the island, and this unilateral concession provides the dictatorship with critical financial support,” the two said in their statement.
But U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, who is also Cuban-American, praised Obama’s plan.
"It's going to bring families together," Martinez, R-Fla., told the Associated Press. But Martinez, too, said he was concerned some in the United States might abuse the open door travel policy as a guise to conduct business in Cuba.
"It would be good if the remittances had some boundaries. Otherwise it could be a windfall to the Cuban government," he said.
"Will they now curtail the 20 percent they take on remittances? Will they now allow more of the Cuban families who are denied permission to travel abroad?" he asked, according to the AP.
Martinez, though, was criticized by the Babalu blog, one of the most-read blogs on Cuban politics, and one that maintains close contact with bloggers living under the Castro regime.
Henry Louis Gomez, one of the editors of the blog, said that Martinez should have said: “The announcement today is good news for the Castro brothers who capture a significant amount of all hard currency that flows through the island. Likewise the change in remittances should provide help to Cuba's military and state security apparatus which are in need. Given these changes will benefit the regime in Havana, it would have been wise wise to ask the Castro brothers for something in return and also to leave some precise limits on this type of travel and the amounts that can be sent to Cuba.
Gomez continued: "The President has expressed his commitment to freedom - libertad - for the Cuban people, and policy implementation should advance that objective. To this end, the administration should have called upon Cuban government to end the onerous charge of 20 percent on remittances before making these policy modifications. Lowering remittance charges and allowing travel for Cuban families wishing to see relatives abroad are two steps the ruling regime should be willing to make immediately to prove they want to make progress towards ending Cuba's castro-inflicted isolation."
By eliminating all restrictions on travel and remittances for Cuban Americans, Obama has actually gone beyond what was permitted under former President Bill Clinton and could have a major impact on Cuba's economy, scholar William LeoGrande, a Cuba specialist and dean of the School of Government at American University, pointed out to IPS news service. Under Bush, Cuban Americans could visit the island only once a year and send a maximum of 75 dollars a month.
"That was a lot less than what immigrants send to the Dominican Republic or El Salvador, and Cuban Americans are much wealthier, so they could send a lot more," according to LeoGrande, who noted that, before Bush's restrictions, Cuban Americans were sending about one billion dollars a year to their families on the island.
U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla, said Obama should have worked to strengthen family ties on the island, but without taking unilateral steps.
“Instead, Congress should vigorously debate these and other ideas before any substantive policy changes are implemented,” Mack said. “None of us should be satisfied, however, until the Cuban people are free and the Castro regime is but a footnote of history.”
Lawmakers who favor lifting the economic embargo against Cuba, including Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Rep. Jeff Flake, D-Ariz., said Obama had taken a good first step.
Obama’s moves on Monday were widely anticipated ahead of the Summit of the Americas meeting at the end of this week in Trinidad and Tobago. A host of Latin American leaders had urged Obama to change U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Some had hoped Obama might go further by loosening rules to allow cultural and educational trips to Cuba by Americans.
Cuban-Americans interviewed on Obama’s move, also were divided. Many pointed out that Cuba trades with much of the rest of the world, and that hasn’t liberalized the regime.
"The big enemy the United States got is Castro," said Cuban-American Fernando Fernandez.
Fernandez told reporters in Collier County, Florida, that Castro's regime forced him out of Cuba 30 years ago.
"My father has been killed by Castro government. My brother got 30 years in prison," said Fernandez.
"Everybody said if we go to Cuba, the American people and everybody go to Cuba, Cuba is going to change. Spain, France, everybody go to Cuba, nothing changes," said Fernandez.
If more money goes to Cuba, Fernandez says only Fidel Castro and his brother Raul will reap the benefits.
"That's what Castro's looking for, dollars and the credit, and now we're going to give it. It's no good," said Fernandez.
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