Flying Down to Havana

Yankees pitcher José Contreras looked to be one happy family man this week, pitching six shut-out innings against the rival Mets on Sunday - while having his wife and two daughters cheer from the stands for the first time since he defected from Cuba two years ago.

The joyous reunion was no thanks to Fidel Castro, however. After the dictator denied exit visas to the pitching sensation's spouse and children, the threesome fled Cuba on a smuggler's speedboat. They reached the Florida Keys, and were captured by the US Border Patrol June 21, then released.

The story illustrates the lengths families will go to reunite, and shows why the Bush administration should reconsider its new measures that restrict family travel to the island. Effective this week, they are part of an overall tightening of travel meant to weaken the Castro regime.

The White House rightly resists efforts in Congress to lift the decades-long embargo on commerce with Cuba, especially in light of Castro's suppression of political dissidents.

But to limit visits of Cuban- Americans to their relatives on the island to once in three years, instead of every year, goes far beyond the intended purpose of reducing the tourism dollars that prop up Castro. To no longer count cousins, aunts, and uncles as immediate family eligible for visiting, and to disallow clothing from care packages are equally nonsensical.

Even during the cold war, West Germany encouraged family contact with East Germany - for sheer humanitarian reasons, but also because people-to-people contact is a good propaganda tool. The only explanation for this misstep is White House pandering to conservative, older Cuban-Americans in Florida.

But Republicans should watch out. The most frequent travelers to Cuba have been more recent arrivals from the island. Although many of them aren't voters yet, they will be. And they will wonder why this White House, like Castro with the Contreras clan, kept families apart.

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