Cuban-Americans eye travel limit budget amendment

December 15, 2011 - 5:55 PM

MIAMI (AP) — Luis Damian came to the U.S. from Cuba nearly a decade ago and has never returned, nor does he frequently send money to his relatives on the island.

Still, he can't understand why Cuban-American politicians from South Florida want to roll back the ability of fellow Cuban-Americans to visit and send money to family there.

"Look, I'm going to be frank. The situation is really screwed there," said the Miami chef. "The only ones who are going to be hurt are the Cuban people."

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has allowed Cuban-Americans to visit extended family on the island as many times as they want and send unlimited remittances to relatives there. But Cuban-Americans like Damian are closely watching an amendment to the $1 trillion-plus omnibus spending package that would return U.S. regulations to the Bush-era, when Cuban-Americans could travel to Cuba only once every three years and send just $1,200 to immediate relatives on the island annually.

U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American Republican from Florida, has sponsored the amendment, which passed unanimously in the House Appropriations Committee earlier this year. He argues the 30 percent cut the Cuban government takes from remittances has been propping up a dictatorship, adding billions of dollars to its coffers. He also maintains people have been abusing the spirit of the regulations by making repeated trips to sell items to Cubans that are otherwise difficult to obtain on the island.

"This is not a humanitarian issue," Diaz-Balart has told The Associated Press. "People who go there ten or fifteen times a year. It's become a business, and a very lucrative business for the Castro regime."

Damian wasn't convinced.

"The government and the officials, they always have money. They will be fine," he said. "I think the politicians don't understand because they don't have relatives on the island. They've made their life here. Most of their family is here."

Older Cuban-Americans who came shortly after the revolution and have few connections to the island tend to support limited travel and remittances. They are also wield significant influence in the swing state of Florida. Although increasingly in the minority, they are far more likely to vote and contribute to political campaigns than the growing number of Cubans who have come to the U.S. in the last 20 years and who generally want to help relatives on the island any way they can.

The president has threatened to veto the budget bill if it contains certain provisions, including the Cuba limits. On Wednesday, while honoring Cuban the late Cuban dissident Laura Pollan, he reiterated his commitment to unrestricted family visits and remittances. But he did not specifically mention a veto of the Cuba language.

Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, a group founded by Cuban-American business leaders supporting greater exchange with the island, said he doesn't believe the House leadership is "willing to lay down on the railroad tracks to save the Cuba provisions," and by Thursday afternoon Republicans had expressed some flexibility on the issue though no final decision had been made.

He also noted that since Obama loosened travel restrictions to the island, the Castro government has begun to allow private enterprise and for the first time permitted Cubans on the island to buy and sell cars and houses.

But Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the US Cuba Democracy Advocates in Washington, who favors the tighter restrictions, argued the Castro government should not be rewarded for limited economic changes, "at a time when (political) repression in Cuba has also more than doubled."

He also cited the more than two years that have passed since American development worker Alan Gross was detained for providing internet technology to the island's Jewish community.

Phil Peters, a Cuba expert at the Virginia-based Lexington Institute think tank, doesn't dispute the human rights violations. He says travel restrictions aren't the answer.

"Obama should continue to stand up for human rights in Cuba. At the same time, I think we should have policies that help the average Cuban live a better life. There's no contradiction," he said.

"Before, the remittances used to be money to help your aunt buy cooking oil and clothing. Now you can send your aunt money to buy the equipment to start a business, or you can send your aunt money to buy a home, because opportunities are opening up. It would be crazy to back away."