By Larry Luxner
A confusing barrage of drastic new Cuba-related travel restrictions first unveiled May 6 by the White House takes effect Jun. 30, in an election-year attempt to deprive the Castro regime of badly needed dollars.
Yet the new rules — recommended to President Bush as part of a coordinated effort to hasten the fall of Fidel Castro — have elicited outrage not only in Havana but also in Washington and Miami.
“These new OFAC regulations further restricting access to Cuba do nothing to hurt the Castro regime; instead, the regulations have a direct and sharply negative impact on Cuban-Americans and U.S. businesses,” said Jody Frisch, executive director of the ATRIP-USA*Engage Alliance, a Washington group representing the U.S. travel industry.
In response to a barrage of complaints, OFAC on Jun. 16 issued a general license giving people already in Cuba an extra month to get home. The waiver lets charter operators fly passengers back to Miami until Jul. 31.
But that ruling has resulted in even more confusion. On Jun. 29, the day before the new regs took effect, 11 out of 16 charter flights scheduled to leave Miami for Havana did so without passengers, since they were authorized by the White House only to bring people back to Miami — not the other way around.
That prompted angry protests from hundreds of Cuban-Americans who were denied boarding, despite having bought valid tickets.
“The whole world can travel to their coun-tries whenever they want, but we can’t,” Jorge Luís Rodríguez, who was hoping to visit his sick 81-year-old mother in Havana, told AP.
“The State Department has refused to auth-orize planes to go to Cuba with passengers on board,” said Frisch. “So for the entire month of July, the charter companies will be sending over empty planes to bring people back.”
Under the new regulations, cash remittan-ces of up to $300 every three months are now limited to immediate family members in Cuba such as children, spouses, siblings, parents, grandparents and grandchildren. Remittan-ces may not be sent to cousins, aunts, uncles or any Cuban who happens to be a government or Communist Party official.
Travelers can now visit their families in Cuba only once every three years, rather than once a year like before, and when they go, they’ll be limited to $300 in cash and 44 lbs. of carry-on luggage, down from $3,000 and no limits on baggage.
While in Cuba, visitors may spend only $50 a day — down from $167 — and they can stay on the island no more than 14 days.
Furthermore, travelers won’t be allowed to bring back rum, cigars or any other non-informational materials. Previous rules allowed $100 in total purchases for personal use. U.S. high-school students will no longer be allowed to study in Cuba, and the “fully hosted” category that allowed U.S. citizens to visit Cuba if they could prove they didn’t spend any money there has now been eliminated.
Finally, Cuban-Americans may no longer include clothing, seeds, personal hygiene items, fishing and soap-making equipment in their gift parcels to Cuba. Under the new rules, only food, medicines, medical supplies and receive-only radio equipment are allowed.
For packages containing items other than food, deliveries are limited to one parcel a month per household, instead of the previous one parcel a month per individual recipient.
And those Cubans receiving parcels must now be immediate family members like a sibling or grandchild. Packages containing one-time gifts like watches and bicycles are also OK as long as they don’t exceed $200 in value.
In justifying that ruling, the Department of Commerce said that although the parcels provided a “critical humanitarian benefit” to ordinary Cubans, they also reduced the “burden of the Cuban regime to provide for the basic needs of its people,” freeing up resources to “strengthening its repressive apparatus.”
Frisch said her organization is particularly upset at the elimination of the “fully hosted” travel category.
“If the aim of the regulation is to prevent the flow of hard currency to Cuba, it is difficult to understand how fully hosted travel — where Americans spend no money during their stay — is damaging to U.S. interests and policy. If these regulations are upheld, the government would be denying that Ameri-cans have a constitutional right to travel.”
In Havana, Castro told 200,000 cheering supporters that the measures were “pitiless and inhumane,” and politically motivated to placate the powerful Cuban-American lobby in Florida, a state Bush carried by just 537 votes in 2000.