Anti-Castro Groups Slam Bush Cuba Moves

The new U.S. plan to "hasten a transition to democracy" in Cuba has met with more opposition than support among the Cuban people, and even from the very dissidents it is designed to back.

The recommendations set forth by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba were presented to President George W. Bush last Thursday, just before Mother’s Day, which is traditionally the occasion of an increased flow of remittances and gifts sent by loved ones abroad.

"They say the remittances won’t be affected, but by stiffening controls on people who travel here, less money will come from family members who live in the North (the United States)," Milagros Sarría, 55, who has a number of relatives living in that country, complained to IPS.

She said that in her neighborhood "no one is talking about anything else," and "most people believe" the measures "will hurt Cuban families" more than the socialist government of Fidel Castro.

Sarría spent Monday morning trying to cash a money order she received from her daughter through the Western Union international money transfer agency.

"It was complicated, because there were so many people in all of the Western Union offices. As if everyone had started sending money just in case, to guard against what might happen," added Sarría, who also receives money brought in by people traveling to Cuba, and is sometimes sent dollars in the name of other people, when necessary.

The US government only allows Cubans living in the United States to send their relatives in this Caribbean island nation a maximum of 1,200 dollars a year. Although Bush’s plan does not lower that ceiling, it does contain measures to crack down on "illegal" transfers of money.

The measures were proposed by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which was created by the US government last year to help focus efforts on achieving its objectives of "hastening Cuba’s peaceful transition to a representative democracy and a free market economy".

The Commission’s policy prescriptions are aimed at tightening the US embargo in effect against Cuba since the early 1960s, and 59 million dollars will be allocated for their implementation.

The measures will limit family visits to Cuba to just one trip every three years, under a specific license only valid for visiting immediate family members. They will also reduce the amount that visitors from the United States can spend on food and lodging in Cuba, from 164 dollars a day to just 50 dollars a day.

In addition, they will limit "recipients of remittances and gift parcels to immediate family members."

The Commission also recommended the designation of a "Transition Coordinator" in the State Department "to facilitate expanded implementation of pro-democracy, civil-society building, and public diplomacy projects and to continue regular planning for future transition assistance contingencies".

Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo, a dissident who returned from exile in the United States in August and is still awaiting authorization from the Cuban government to stay in Cuba, reacted strongly against the plan, which he said was "a provocation" and amounted to "meddling".

"The recommendations to President (Bush) are practically an incitement to armed conflict," the dissident stated in a letter addressed to US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Gutiérrez Menoyo delivered the letter to the US Interests Section in Havana when he visited it Monday accompanied by other activists also opposed to Bush’s program.

"We have received the letter and we will make sure it gets to Secretary Powell," a diplomat at the Interests Section told IPS.

The document, which carries the letterhead of Cambio Cubano (Cuban Change), a U.S.-based organization of moderate Cuban exiles led by Gutiérrez Menoyo, warns of the risk that "anxiety could be generated across this nation, which could result in public disturbances and even an uprising of unpredictable characteristics."

It also predicts that the impact of the new measures could lead to "a massive exodus (and) a conflict…with the consequent loss of lives of US soldiers and destabilization of the Caribbean basin region."

Gutiérrez Menoyo, a former commander of the guerrilla army that toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista and seized power in 1959, became an adversary of Castro’s revolutionary government and spent 22 years in jail as a political prisoner until his release in 1986, when he went into exile.

In August 2003 he returned to Cuba for a visit and announced his decision to stay, and to open a local branch of Cambio Cubano. So far he has received no official response to his request for authorization to live in Havana, but the authorities have not bothered him either.

The dissident’s message to Powell was accompanied by a statement titled "Cuba: time for clarification – you are either Cuban or annexationist," in which he called the naming of a "Transition Coordinator" "an insult to the Cuban people".

He also urged the "independent opposition" to visit the US Interests Section to express their rejection of the recommendations, and reiterated his call to the Cuban government to engage in dialogue with opposition groups.

"The United States has absolutely no right to define the how, what or when, or the pace and timing of the democratic transition in Cuba," said another leading dissident, Manuel Cuesta Morúa, spokesman for the Arco Progresista, a coalition of social democratic opposition groups.

Cuesta Morúa accompanied Gutiérrez Menoyo, as did Manuel Gutiérrez, an activist belonging to a small group, the Consejo Nacional Defensor de los Derechos Civiles.

Meanwhile, Oswaldo Payá, the driving force behind the Varela Project which is calling for changes in Cuba’s socialist system, said "Cuba’s transition process will be designed" in a national dialogue between Cubans.

"It is up to Cubans to design the changes," said Payá – the winner of the European Union’s Sakharov Prize for human rights in 2002 – in a statement faxed to the foreign press to announce the start of "a day of reflection on the transformations required by Cuba".

"It is not right, nor do we accept, any external element, whether from the United States of America, Europe or anywhere else, trying to design the Cuban transition process or supposedly becoming an actor in that process," said Payá.

Elizardo Sánchez, the president of the Comisión Cubana de Derechos Humanos y Reconciliación Nacional (Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation), also said Monday that "I do not call into doubt the good faith of those who drafted the report (by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba), but I believe that several of the proposals contained therein are absolutely counterproductive" and "objectively meddlesome".

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Author: Patricia Grogg

Patricia Grogg writes for Inter Press Service.