Talk of Phone, Air Links Stirs Cuban-Americans

CUBAN President Fidel Castro Ruz's bid last month to open a window to the United States and its dollars met a rebuff from influential Cuban-Americans in Miami.

In ceremonies on July 26 marking the 40th anniversary of the communist revolution, Mr. Castro announced plans to allow Cubans to hold US dollars and to encourage Cuban exiles to return for family visits.

Two days earlier, the Clinton administration proposed opening the first direct telephone lines to Cuba in 30 years. (Until now, if Cuban-Americans wanted to call relatives in Havana, they had to call a private agency in Canada, which relayed the call, at great expense, to Cuba.)

Hard-line anticommunists of the Cuban-American community here in Florida, long opposed to any accommodation with Castro, said they are in favor of the new phone service, but quickly attacked plans to increase visits to Cuba by exiles.

"We feel the embargo has to be maintained and flights to Cuba are just another way to gain US dollars." says Fernando Rojas, executive vice president of the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation. After Castro's offer, "people tried to sell tour packages to Cuba costing up to $1,000 for seven days, which is over the $100-per-day limit allowed by the US government," he adds.

Feeling that their 33-year wait for Castro's downfall is nearly over, exiles such as Eduardo Ferrer wrote the Miami Herald that permitting increased flights to Cuba "collaborates with the tyrant, especially during this period of his regime's imminent breakdown."

Promptly, the US government backed down on increased flights between Miami and Havana, evidence of the clout Cuban-Americans have achieved in national as well as south Florida politics. On Aug. 4, after United Airlines and charter airlines had already announced they were setting up flights from Miami to Cuba, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gelbard told the House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs that "we are now reviewing closely" airline applications for service to Cuba and the flig hts are on hold.

"We indeed intend to study this at great length and fully consult with you," Mr. Gelbard said after questioning by Cuban-American Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republicans of Florida, and Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey. Mr. Torricelli is author of the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act that tightened the US embargo against Cuba by barring trade by overseas branches of US companies and blocking ships that stop in Cuba from visiting US ports for six months.

"The cornerstone of our policy continues to be our comprehensive trade embargo," Gelbard had told a Senate committee July 29. "We believe we can best foster an environment for peaceful change in Cuba by continuing to isolate the Cuban government diplomatically, politically, and economically, until basic rights are respected and democratic reforms are enacted."

MEANWHILE, the nearly 1 million Cuban exiles, many of them from Cuba's precommunist upper and professional class, have prospered in Miami, where they control or strongly influence the politics, economy, and professions.

Cuban-American clout has made it politically costly to discuss ending the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, under which Cubans are the only nationality granted automatic asylum once they reach the US. About 125,000 Cuban refugees arrived in a few weeks in 1980 in the Mariel boatlift, costing south Florida's social services some $400 million. This year and last, about 2,000 "raft people" have floated to the US, while a few dozen more were spirited across the 90-mile wide Florida Straits by speedboats or hijacked


When Castro is out of the picture, the number of people who could seek to come to Florida to join relatives, escape persecution or simply seek a better life could well dwarf the Mariel boatlift, said a State Department official.

"There are contingency plans to deal with such an immigration influx," he said, but those plans are too "sensitive" to discuss. Dealing with incoming Cubans at sea "is a fuzzy area under current law, with the Cuban Adjustment Act in force," he adds.

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