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New US Restrictions on Cuba Raise Tensions in Cuban-Exile Community - 2004-06-30

New rules tightening travel and remittances to Cuba went into effect Wednesday. The rules are part of what the Bush administration calls a "comprehensive strategy" aimed at making life more difficult for Cuba's communist government. VOA's Jim Teeple reports, the rules are making life more difficult for some Cuban-exiles in Miami but others say they are necessary and long overdue.

Waiting areas at Miami's international airport were crowded with Cuban exiles as the new rules went into effect. Hundreds of people tried to get on flights before the rules were applied to avoid the new restrictions. Many like George Perez, who was trying to board a flight to see his two aging sisters in Havana, say they are angry about the restrictions.

"I guess President Bush has his own opinions, but if they say you can only see your family in three years that is a long time," he said. "So, we are trying to go for a last time and then wait three more years."

The new rules allow U.S. residents to visit relatives once every three years, instead of an annual visit, previously allowed. Those traveling to Cuba can only spend $50 a day on food and lodging and $50 on transportation, considerably less than under the old rules. Other changes restrict what U.S. residents can send to Cuba and only allow them to send money and gifts to immediate family members.

The rules were taken from a 500-page report written by President Bush's Commission on Assistance to a Free Cuba. The commission was established last October. Ninoska Perez, directs the Miami-based Cuban Liberty Council, a hard-line anti-Castro organization. She says the new rules will hit the Cuban government hard where it hurts most: in the pocketbook.

"Well, they go directly towards the economy of a repressive system," she said. "These are what sanctions really do. When you want peaceful change you apply sanctions, in the same way that were applied in South Africa and in other countries. The United States is trying to promote a change towards democracy in Cuba."

No one is affected more by the new rules than the seven charter companies which book an average of 20 flights a week between Havana and the United States. Tessie Aral, the vice president of ABC Charters says she will have to lay off many of her 16 employees. Ms. Aral says the new rules will hurt a broad cross section of Cuban exiles and their family members inside Cuba.

"It [the new rules] does not help the Cuban people because the regulations basically prohibit people from seeing their families on a regular basis," she said. "They prohibit people from sending their family goods, like clothes, sundries, toothpaste and soap. They prohibit people from taking any money they can spend while they are visiting Cuba. They hurt the Cuban people who have free enterprise by prohibiting the buying of Cuban goods, so now the people who make souvenirs and have their own private enterprises can no long sell those goods. So, I do not understand how this helps the Cuban people."

Tessie Aral and other opponents of the new rules say they are designed to help President Bush solidify his support with Cuban-American voters, a charge administration officials strongly deny.

What the new rules have done is highlight divisions between Cuban exiles who arrived in the United many years ago and those who arrive more recently. The rules mostly affect exiles who came to the United States in recent years, and who have family members still alive in Cuba.

However even some Cuban exiles with relatives in Cuba like Mirta Casao say they support the new restrictions, although with mixed feelings. Ms. Casao who had just arrived in Miami after visiting her mother in Havana says she supports anything that will bring an end to the Castro government.

"I think what we, the Cubans, want is Castro out," she said. "So, the sooner we get him out of there the sooner we will be able to go back to our country. So, I am for anything that is against Castro and for taking him out."

Cuban officials have strongly condemned the new rules. An estimated 176,000 U.S. residents visited Cuba in 2003 and thousands more traveled to the island via third countries like Mexico, Canada and the Bahamas. U.S. residents visiting Cuba spend an estimated $200 million annually, an amount which is expected to be considerably reduced by the new restrictions.