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White house tightens cuba travel money { May 7 2004 }

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White House Moves to Tighten Cuba Travel, Money Restrictions

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 2004; Page A28

The Bush administration said yesterday that it would tighten the 40-year-old U.S. financial squeeze on Cuba and work to prevent President Fidel Castro from passing power to Communist Party successors.

In a series of moves quickly denounced by Democrats as an election-year play for votes in Florida, the White House said it would sharply limit visits to the island by Cuban Americans and cut the amount they could spend there.

Hundreds of millions of dollars that Cuban Americans send to relatives in Cuba could not go to Communist Party members or officials connected to what the State Department's senior Latin American diplomat called a repressive Cuban government apparatus.

"Our goal is to liberate the Cuban people from tyranny and their dependence on international charity," said Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega. He described the moves, which were recommended by a presidential commission, as a "decisive and integrated strategy."

The new approach is similar in spirit to earlier Bush proposals but includes a push to prevent Castro's younger brother and his communist colleagues from running the country after Castro, 77, leaves the scene. Other measures combine intensified economic pressure with tens of millions of dollars more for pro-democracy efforts.

The administration intends to increase its budget for pro-democracy activities by more than 400 percent, drawing from other programs. Some money would support the families of Castro's political opponents, and other funds would launch a U.S. military C-130 aircraft to broadcast U.S.-backed radio and television signals to Cuba.

"We're not waiting for the day of Cuban freedom, we are working for the day of freedom in Cuba," President Bush said in accepting the recommendations of a presidential commission chaired by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

Democrats and some Republicans were quick to dismiss the effort, either because they believe the policy of financial pressure has failed after four decades or because the announcement was made during a close presidential campaign.

Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) accused Bush of "playing election-year politics with the lives of the Cuban people."

"The need and timing of a White House Cuba commission and its release of a report today is highly dubious and politically transparent," said Menendez, a Cuban American who chairs the House Democratic caucus. "The Cuban American community will not be fooled by grandstanding and words that are too little, too late."

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is a leading proponent of congressional efforts to lift ever-tighter restrictions on travel to Cuba, a proposal that won majorities in the House and Senate last year. He said trying to use a C-130 to defeat Cuban jamming of U.S. government broadcasts is laudable but insufficient.

"If we're really serious about letting Cubans hear a voice other than Castro's, why not let Americans travel there?" Flake asked in a written statement. "After all, Castro can't scramble a firsthand conversation."

Among supporters, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) described himself as "very pleased."

"This is a serious demonstration of solidarity with Cuba's right to be free," said Diaz-Balart, whose aunt was married to Castro. "It has a long-term vision. It will not accept Castroism without Castro."

Diaz-Balart and Menendez were among the Cuban American leaders who criticized Bush last year, saying he had not lived up to commitments he had made on Cuba. In part to address such criticism, Bush appointed the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, headed by Powell, to find a way to force Castro from power and prepare for a post-communist transition.

Powell shared the chairmanship with then-Housing Secretary Mel R. Martinez, who resigned with Bush's blessing to seek a Senate seat from Florida. On the eve of the report's release, Lawrence B. Wilkerson, Powell's chief of staff, was quoted in GQ magazine as calling U.S. policy on Cuba the "dumbest policy on the face of the Earth."

The approach outlined in the 500-page report seeks to deny cash to Cuban authorities while supporting the fragile opposition punished by the Castro government. Bush would intensify 40-year-old sanctions by limiting return visits to the island by Cuban Americans to one every three years. He also intends to cut what they are allowed to spend from $165 a day to $50.

The report recommends strong U.S. enforcement of the anti-Castro restrictions, including the use of sting operations and informants to identify people skirting the rules on financial transfers. Noriega said the report is now U.S. policy.

The administration wants to work with the Organization of American States and a variety of countries to assist independent voices in Cuba, and to establish a scholarship program to help dissidents' relatives study abroad.

U.S. authorities would seek more cooperation from U.S. allies who have soured on Castro after his persecution of democracy activists. Mexico and Peru recalled their ambassadors from Havana on Sunday.

Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.

2004 The Washington Post Company

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