Behind the Headlines As Bush Gets Tougher on Cuba, Groups Worry About Impact on Jews by Larry Luxner

Jewish humanitarian groups are debating how tough new U.S. regulations aimed at depriving the Castro regime of dollars will affect Cuba’s estimated 1,500 Jews.

“This strategy encourages the spending of money to help organizations to protect dissidents and to promote human rights,” President Bush said as the State Department made public a 423-page report prepared over the last six months by the administration’s top-secret Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. “It is a strategy that will prevent the regime from exploiting hard currency of tourists and of remittances to Cubans to prop up their repressive regime.”

Yet Congressional critics on both sides of the aisle view the policy primarily as an election-year maneuver aimed at winning the votes of hardline Cuban exiles in southern Florida.

Under new rules announced May 6, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, will continue to let Cuban-Americans send $1,200 a year to Cuba in the form of family remittances, but the remittances will be restricted only to immediate family members.

Among other things, Cuban-Americans will be allowed to send their loved ones only one “gift parcel” per month per household. Those parcels can consist only of medicines, medical supplies, receive-only radios and batteries, not to exceed a total value of $200. Food also can be sent, with no limit on value.

In addition, Cuban-Americans will be allowed to visit their families in Cuba only once every three years, rather than once a year under current policy. When they do go to Cuba, they’ll be allowed to stay a maximum of only 14 days and spend $50 a day — a dramatic reduction from the $164 per diem now in effect.

Finally, Cuban-Americans flying to the island on charter flights will not be allowed to carry more than 44 pounds of accompanied baggage, in a move designed to deprive the Cuban government of the ability to charge excess baggage fees of $2 per pound above the 44-pound limit.

Richard Smith, who runs a website called www.jewishcuba.org, said that Jewish humanitarian groups visiting Cuba won’t be seriously affected by the crackdown, but elderly and infirm Cuban Jews who depend on remittances will be.

“Along with support from European tourism, this is a major factor in providing income, in this case particularly for individual Cubans,” he said. “Hopefully these rules will not be implemented fully, or if they are, hopefully people will find a way around them.”

Stan Falkenstein, founder of the Jewish Cuba Connection in Marina del Rey, Calif., sees things differently.

“From my perspective, I don’t see the current round of new regulations having an incredibly large effect on the Jewish community, because most of the financial help they get comes from the missions,” he said. “However, if those missions were severely limited, or if the $50 per diem was to apply to them, it would have a devastating effect on the community.”

In addition to helping needy Jews, Falkenstein — whose group has sponsored six or seven humanitarian trips to Cuba in the past two years — has raised $20,000 to ship 1,000 wheelchairs to needy individuals in Cuba. The recipients are not Jewish, but the donations are made in the name of the Cuban Jewish community.

Falkenstein said there’s a perceptible difference between the Clinton administration and the Bush administration on Cuba.

“When I first started bringing groups to Cuba, we were an arm of American foreign policy. I don’t get that sense today,” he said. “The Bush administration and the U.S. Interests Section in Havana would be just as happy if fewer people came.”

Cash remittances from Cuban-Americans — which amount to $400 million to $800 million a year — are Cuba’s largest source of foreign exchange after tourism.

In addition, more than 125,000 Cuban-Americans visited the island last year. According to the commission’s report, at least 31,000 traveled to Cuba more than once, generating $96 million for the Castro government in 2003.

The new rules seek to discourage Cuban-Americans from spending dollars in government-owned shops and staying in hotels that are owned by the government and therefore benefit Castro directly.

June Safran, who runs the San Francisco-based Cuban-American Jewish Mission, said she’s very worried about how the restrictions might impact average Cubans, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

“There are a lot of people without shoes, lots of hungry people in Cuba, people who eat rolls in the morning and let the children have the milk,” she told JTA. “If remittances are cut back, it will exacerbate the problems.”

Bush’s policy review also calls for tougher enforcement of existing OFAC regulations that forbid most U.S. citizens from visiting Cuba. Exceptions to the travel ban include journalists, business travelers with a specific license, participants on bona fide humanitarian or religious missions or students on educational trips that directly support U.S. policy goals.

“Continued and strengthened enforcement of travel restrictions will ensure that permitted travel is not abused and used as a cover for tourism, illegal business travel or to evade restrictions on carrying cash into Cuba,” the report said.

Safran said she has taken Jewish humanitarian groups — ranging in size from eight to 30 people — to Cuba 17 times.

“You really have to stick to an itinerary” to avoid run-ins with OFAC, she told JTA.

“We have always tried to make our trips extremely Jewish, with daily activities in the synagogue and study sessions with Jewish people,” she said. “The license our organization has is for taking humanitarian aid down to the Jewish community and conducting religious activities.”

To be on the safe side, Safran posts the itineraries of her trips online and makes them available to OFAC upon demand. Even so, Safran isn’t sure the agency will renew her license when it expires next month.

Mark Weinstein, who runs a program called Jewish Cuban Experience, sends missions to Cuba from Miami on a weekly basis. Participants don’t have to worry about breaking the law because Weinstein has an OFAC license.

“This is not tourism. We support the Jewish community over there,” he said. “People bring medicine. This is legitimate — no monkey business.”

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