WASHINGTON — The values of faith and family mean a lot to Ana Karim, a Cuban-American from Richmond, Va. and a Mennonite pastor. She has two very ill uncles living in Cuba. For the past decade, she has used a US license granted to Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba and care for these elderly and infirm relatives.
On her last visit to Havana, she bought a gift of soap for them at a dollar store; a necessity they can no longer afford because of rising prices. She carried a suitcase with her, jammed with medicines for her uncles that are costly and scarce in Cuba.
Ana's uncles, like so many Cubans, depend on visits, financial support, and gifts to keep body and soul together. She's now lamenting the real possibility that she will never see them again. Like thousands of other Cuban-Americans, Ana realizes her ability to visit Cuba will be radically restricted under new sanctions embraced by President Bush.
For 45 years, well before we learned the term "regime change," US presidents have tried to drive Fidel Castro from power. Bush's plan, effective last Wednesday, is the latest such attempt. Its goal is to destabilize Cuba economically - to dry up the flow of US dollars to the island. But the president's strategy will only hurt American and Cuban families, and do nothing to change Cuba's form of government.
The plan cuts visits Cuban-Americans can make to their families on the island from one a year to one every three years. It redefines "family" - aunts, uncles, or cousins no longer count. It slashes what travelers may spend in Cuba from $164 to $50 per day. New limits have no exceptions for visits to a sick or dying relative or to attendance at a funeral. As four US senators wrote recently, it squeezes "the Castro regime at the expense of the Cuban people." These tougher sanctions against Cuba are a terrible idea for several reasons.
First, they'll increase hunger in Cuba. On my most recent trip to Havana, last month, there was a sharp spike from previous visits in stories of deprivation and hardship for average Cubans. A pound of pork costs 25 pesos - a tenth of the average monthly wage. A few weeks ago, there were shortages of cooking oil. An official of the Havana Catholic archdiocese told me of visiting people in rural Cuba; many are living on a subsistence basis, some eating no more than a couple bananas per day.
While problems with hunger are rooted largely in the centralized control of the Cuban economy, the US embargo causes others. Blame aside, Cuban families depend on assistance from the US to eat, and the Bush administration's plan will dramatically reduce the funds average Cubans have to put food on their tables.
Second, this plan hits the wrong target. Sanctions against a foreign government have never so directly hit American families. During the cold war, freedom to travel was recognized as an important human right. The US didn't try to stop Eastern European families from visiting their relations behind the Iron Curtain. It shouldn't stop families from taking care of their own in Cuba.
Finally, these sanctions violate a core tenet of US foreign policy. Ever since President Carter's discredited sanctions preventing grain sales to Russia, most US politicians have disavowed the use of hunger as a weapon.
In 2000, George W. Bush said in a presidential debate, "We shouldn't be using food as a diplomatic weapon." For good reason: Food embargoes don't work. Aiming "weapons of malnutrition" at Cubans will only weaken America's moral standing in an era of great challenge to its foreign policy. The correct path for US-Cuba relations goes in a different direction. There should be no restrictions on contacts between the Cubans and Americans , and no limits on the amount of money and food Americans can send hungry family members.
Restrictions on travel and trade should be relaxed, and trade should flow in both directions. Most of all, US foreign policy - to be durable and successful - should be honoring people like Ana Karim, whose faith in family and values will bring Cuba and America much closer than the policy of regime change ever could.
• Sarah Stephens is director of the Freedom to Travel Campaign, a project of the Center for International Policy, for which she has led 17 fact-finding delegations for members of Congress and others to Cuba in the past four years.