Just when you thought that U.S. policy toward Cuba couldnít get any dumber, along comes President Bush with another grandstanding stunt that is doomed to backfire.
To punish Fidel Castro, the U.S. Treasury Department has rolled out new rules sharply curtailing travel to Cuba by exiles living in the United States.
This would be the same crackerjack Treasury Department that admitted having six times as many agents pursuing violators of the Cuban embargo than it does tracking the finances of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
Under the new controls, Cuban-Americans will only be allowed to visit immediate relatives on the island every three years, instead of annually, and will be permitted to stay only two weeks. Exiles going to Cuba will be restricted to spending $50 daily, instead of the previous limit of $167.
In addition, the Bush administration is reducing the cash remittances sent by exiles to their Cuban relatives. The annual $1,200 allowance may now go only to immediate family members Ė not cousins, aunts or uncles.
The theory behind the new policy is to starve the Castro regime of precious income, and thereby hasten its downfall. Seriously. Thatís the White House line Ė the same one weíve heard for more than 40 years.
The immediate effect of the travel crackdown is to provide Fidel with one more hardship he can blame on the United States, and you can hear him booming all the way from Havana. In Miami, you can hear weeping.
This is how you bring down Castro? By putting up a wall between Cuban-Americans and their loved ones 90 miles away?
For the rest of us, itís almost impossible to conceive a circumstance in which our own government would so aggressively endeavor to fragment families. Imagine being told you had to wait three years to go see an ailing parent or grandparent who lived in Ireland or Germany or even communist China. U.S. authorities would never stand in your way Ė unless the country was Cuba.
The issue of travel to Cuba has always been controversial in the exile community. Thousands of Cuban-Americans visit the island every year, and not all of them go just to see relatives.
Hardliners say that you canít claim to be a true political exile and still take family vacations to the country you fled. They also object to the spending of U.S. cash, which they say has bolstered the anemic Cuban economy and helped keep Castro in power.
That Cuba has benefited immensely from exile visits and American tourism is indisputable Ė an estimated $200 million a year. No less of a windfall, however, is the untrackable gush of money sent from Cuban-Americans here to relatives struggling on the island.
The theory that Castro will topple from power if we strangle him economically is as moldy as it is discredited. The United States has been trying to strangle him since 1961 with an embargo that stands today as the worst foreign policy flop in the Western Hemisphere.
Thanks to us, Castro will never be overthrown. Heíll die in power, from a heart attack or some old manís disease. In the meantime, he is on the verge of outlasting the 10th U.S. president to have predicted his demise.
Throughout the embargo and all the trumpeted sanctions, Castroís lifestyle hasnít suffered at all. The people of Cuba certainly have, and now they get to suffer even more, thanks to George W. Bush. This time itís emotional deprivation, not economic. This time itís heartbreak, not hunger. Because weíre going to ďpunishĒ Fidel by keeping separated Cuban families apart, reaping sorrow in Florida as well as in Havana.
The punitive new rules sit just fine with hard-line Cuban-American politicians and most older exiles, who tend to vote Republican in large numbers. However, many middle-aged and younger Cuban-Americans deeply resent being told when they can travel to Cuba, whom they can visit, how long they can stay, and how much they can spend.
These exiles vote, too, though the president had better hope that they donít.