Policy Met Politics in Cuba Rules.
By Peter Slevin
Fla. Anti-Castro Forces Helped Shape Laws.
Early last year, Otto Reich shopped a new project to his boss, national
security adviser Condoleezza Rice. A Havana-born hard-liner with a habit
of picking verbal fights with Cuban President Fidel Castro, Reich
believed the United States was unprepared for Castro's fall and needed a
Rice liked the idea. The White House was overwhelmed with preparations
for invading Iraq, so she told her new special envoy for Latin America
to proceed and promised to pay closer attention after the war. Reich and
a close-knit team of State Department political appointees felt they
had, at last, an insider's chance to undo Castro.
As Reich's initiative gathered steam, word kept reaching the White House
that Cuban Americans in Miami felt that President Bush had broken his
promises to challenge Castro more sharply. Worse, Republican political
figures warned that Cuban Americans crucial to Bush's 537-vote margin in
Florida in 2000 might stay home in 2004.
It was a matter, state Rep. David Rivera said, of "telling the White
House we need some help down here. We need something to motivate
This confluence of policymaking and politics led to the tightest
restrictions on Cuban Americans' interactions with the island in
decades: a limit of one visit every three years, a sharp reduction in
how much they can spend there and new curbs on the goods they can send.
Cuba policy has historically been driven by domestic politics, but this
episode -- in accounts given by participants and close observers in
Miami and Washington -- offers an exceptional glimpse into how the two
The policy, imposed this summer, prompted a revolt in Congress and
angered some of the Cuban Americans it was intended to please; it also
produced enough animosity, Democrats hope, to help throw Florida to Sen.
John F. Kerry (Mass.).
Officials said critical political input came from the president's
brother Jeb Bush, who is Florida's governor and an avid cultivator of
the state's Cuban American population.
State Department officials confirmed that, in a Congress severely
divided on how to produce democracy in Cuba, they reached out only to
the three Cuban American Republican representatives from South Florida
-- all strong proponents of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba.
Assistant Secretary of State Roger F. Noriega, who managed the policy
review, said he and his aides had numerous conversations with members of
the White House political staff under Karl Rove, Bush's chief political
adviser and a fierce supporter of travel limits. Politics played a
"natural" role in shaping the strategy, Noriega said.
"Politics intersect with the policy. In a democracy, it always should,"
he said. The role of foreign policy experts at the National Security
Council, said one participant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity,
was "as great as, or greater than, the politics shop."
In fact, the opinions of the most hard-line administration figures and
some members of the White House political staff dovetailed
significantly, even if their ambitions for the policy were different:
One was focused on Bush's reelection, the other on Castro's demise.
Defenders of the policy said discussions inside the administration were
intense and final decisions were made by Bush. They describe him as
convinced that the strategy would wound Castro and energize more voters
than it alienated.
Former diplomat Wayne Smith, an opponent of sanctions, said: "I've been
involved in U.S.-Cuba policy since 1958. This is the stupidest policy
I've ever seen, bar none."
The story begins with Reich, a former lobbyist and diplomat. Bush named
him assistant secretary of state for Latin America in 2001 after Jeb
Bush recommended him and Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) -- a Cuban
American hard-liner whose aunt was married to Castro -- appealed to
The Senate never confirmed him. Democrats blasted Reich as a divisive,
one-issue figure, and the White House found no enthusiasm among moderate
Republicans for a fight. When Reich's recess appointment expired, he
moved to the NSC under Rice. With him, he carried his idea for
developing a transition plan for Cuba.
By October 2003, Reich's proposal had taken shape as the President's
Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, with Secretary of State Colin
L. Powell and Cuban-born Housing Secretary Mel R. Martinez as
co-chairmen. The commission would "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 in the Rose Garden.
The administration was not in good favor at the time with an important
segment of the Cuban American community, according to political figures
and analysts interviewed in Miami and Washington. Strongly anti-Castro
activists believed that Bush had not delivered on promises to revise
Clinton administration policy and crack down on Castro.
"There were tremendous expectations that something would happen in Cuba.
Here was someone who was rough and tough," said Dennis K. Hays, former
head of the State Department's Cuba desk. Yet nearly three years into
Bush's term, Hays said, the disillusionment was powerful.
The last straw for some Bush supporters was the July 2003 decision to
repatriate a dozen Cubans intercepted after hijacking a Cuban government
boat. The State Department negotiated a promise from Cuba to impose
10-year prison terms instead of executing them.
Calling the negotiations "offensive and misguided," 13 Republican
Florida legislators sent a letter to Bush -- with copies to Rove and
Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie -- describing "great
disappointment and outrage" over the lack of a comprehensive Cuba
"We fear," they wrote, "the historic and intense support from Cuban
American voters for Republican federal candidates, including yourself,
will be jeopardized."
Bush's commission, composed solely of government officials, first met in
December. Martinez soon resigned to run for the U.S. Senate in Florida,
leaving Powell in charge. Given a deadline to file a report in six
months -- and barely six months before the November elections -- the
authors worked fast.
Powell assigned Noriega to coordinate the effort. To run the crucial
working group that would design plans to destabilize Castro, Noriega
drafted his deputy, Daniel Fisk. Fisk was a fellow staff member to
former senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), an ardent Castro opponent. The
report's editor was Jose Cardenas, who worked for the Cuban American
National Foundation when it dominated U.S. policy.
The staff consulted principally with individuals and groups whose
hard-line opinions were well advertised. When others later objected, one
U.S. official argued that "trying to wade through all the different
people who had an interest in Cuba was going to be very complicated and
was not necessarily going to make the report any better."
No issues were more sharply argued than the rules for remittances and
travel to the island. The theory behind 40 years of U.S. sanctions is
that economic hardship will squeeze Castro from power, or at least force
change. But Reich, Noriega, Helms and others have long argued that
prevailing restrictions were not strong enough to punish a government
that profits enormously from travel dollars and money shipped to Cubans
by relatives and friends abroad.
As the president's commission did its work, some of Bush's most vocal
supporters in Miami called for a nonnegotiable end to trips to Cuba.
Others said exiles should not be permitted to return to the island until
they had received U.S. citizenship. At the time, Cuban Americans were
officially restricted to one trip per year, but exceptions were routine.
Within the commission, one group argued that remittances -- then limited
to $100 a month -- should be eliminated. Someone else proposed a 90-day
moratorium. Among those seeking a firm line were Noriega and
Diaz-Balart, who noted in an interview, "I've been on the record for
cutting as much of the flow of currency to the regime as possible."
Sources said members of the White House political staff pressed the
mid-level State Department officials to push ever harder on Castro --
harder than even the veteran anti-Castro players had intended. They
found themselves pushing back as they drafted their final
For a final review by Powell, Rice and other Cabinet-level appointees on
the presidential commission, Noriega's team produced a strongly worded
document. It called for a 50 percent reduction in remittances and a cut
in travel by Cuban Americans to once every three years, with no
exceptions for illness or death in the family.
The travel rule would be adopted and approved by Bush, along with a cut
from $164 to $50 in the amount Cuban Americans visiting relatives could
spend per day. Also adopted was a prohibition on sending gift packages
with such items as soap, deodorant, seeds and clothing.
The remittance decision proved the most difficult, participants said,
and it fell to Bush.
As the pressure built, Reich and human rights activist Frank Calzon, one
of Washington's most outspoken Castro opponents, urged decision makers
not to go too far. Calzon's voice carried weight because no one could
accuse him of being soft on Castro.
Powell and Rice asked whether a cut in remittances would do more harm
than good to Cubans and to U.S. policy.
Bush decided in a session in the White House's Roosevelt Room that
cutting the remittances would risk an accusation that he was needlessly
preventing money from reaching Cuban families. When the policy was
released May 6, the administration declared that only immediate
relatives could receive money but the amounts would stay the same.
"There was a clash. The guy who made the final decision on remittances
was George W. Bush. The president said, 'No, I'm not going to hurt
abuelita. That's not the purpose of this,' " said someone who was
present, quoting Bush as using the Spanish diminutive for "grandmother."
When the policy was announced, the outcry from angry Cuban Americans
registered loudest. Diaz-Balart and others dismissed the complainers as
an insignificant minority, but the opposition made headlines.
"I get very offended with someone telling me how to engage with my
family," said Ana Karim, 32, a Cuban American pastor in Richmond. "I
don't want to go illegally, but if I need to go see my family because my
uncle's not doing well or somebody's dying, I'll figure out a way to get
Kerry made a gamble of his own after seeing that the rules governing
family visits and remittances had gone so far. Although candidates
typically race to see who can talk the toughest, he staked out a more
In a community that voted more than 4 to 1 for Bush in 2000, Democrats
argued that Cuban American families and their Cuban relatives were being
unfairly penalized. Vowing to organize a new voting bloc, leaders said
enough Republican voters might stay home to tip the Florida race to
Confusion defined the implementation of the regulations, which were
hurried into place June 30 without the usual comment period. It quickly
became clear that the administration had not considered all
Countless Americans traveling in Cuba discovered they had lost
permission to be there, while charter companies had lost permission to
retrieve them. The U.S. administration granted a 30-day reprieve.
Cuban Americans accustomed to sending gift packages objected after being
told they could no longer ship certain goods. The State Department said
it would relax the rules to allow the shipment of toiletries -- only to
reverse course again.
Hispanic and black representatives persuaded Powell to exempt from the
new rules a program in Cuba for U.S. medical students. In a rebuke to
Bush, the House voted 221 to 194 to block the administration from
enforcing the restrictions on gift packages.
Officials now say all the regulations will be reviewed after a comment
period that ended Aug. 16.
Reich, the man who started it all, was pleased that the U.S. government
finally had a comprehensive strategy. So were Noriega and Fisk. All
three told others that they anticipated the reaction. The benefits of
the policy, they said, would justify the short-term pain.
Rivera, the Florida legislator, was also pleased, even if the policy was
not as rigorous as he had wanted. "It's no coincidence," he said, "that
the three major changes in Cuba policy came in election years."
Source: Washington Post Staff Writer
August 24, 2004