Cuba retaliates with clampdown on dollar

Click to follow
The Independent US

Cuba suspended abruptly the sale of all but a handful of essential goods at hard currency stores yesterday in apparent retaliation for tighter restrictions on travel and currency transfers, announced by President Bush last week in an overt effort to prise Fidel Castro from power.

Cuba suspended abruptly the sale of all but a handful of essential goods at hard currency stores yesterday in apparent retaliation for tighter restrictions on travel and currency transfers, announced by President Bush last week in an overt effort to prise Fidel Castro from power.

Warning of "days of work and sacrifice" ahead, the Cuban government announced that only food, personal hygiene and cleaning products would be sold in dollar-denominated stores until further notice. It also warned of price increases for petrol and other consumer goods. Shortly before the rules took effect, Cubans jammed into late-night stores on Monday night to buy cooking oil, canned food, pasta, soap and toilet paper.

A government statement blamed the measures squarely on the US, saying that President Bush's new restrictions were a major squeeze on hard currency coming into the country.

"The brutality of the measures adopted by the government of the United States will unfortunately increase the prices in the shops that offer goods in dollars and at gasoline stations," the statement said.

"The brutal and cruel measures, on top of a strict blockade of 45 years ... are directly aimed at strangling our development and reducing to a minimum hard currency resources vital to cover food needs and medical, educational and other essential services that our population needs."

This tough rhetoric was greeted sceptically by many observers, who sawPresident Bush's new restrictions and the Castro government's reaction to them as being more about election-year politics in Florida - home to the greatest concentration of Cuban exiles in the US - than it was about economic realities or the desire for immediate "regime change" on the island.

Based on the 500-page recommendations of a specially convened Cuba commission, President Bush announced last Thursday that the $1,200 that Cuban Americans were allowed to send home each year would be restricted to immediate relatives. Members of the Cuban Communist Party - some 800,000 people - would not be eligible to receive the money.

President Bush also decided that Cuban Americans would be allowed to travel home every three years instead of every year, and limited the amount that relatives could carry into Cuba to $50 a day from $164.

He said these moves were designed specifically to end the "tyranny" of the Castro regime.

What was remarkable about them, however, is that they were far less stringent than originally envisioned. The White House had considered halving or even abolishing the $1,200 currency transfer figure but changed its mind after moderate Cuban exile groups in Florida, who maintain strong ties to family members back home, expressed strong opposition.

The remittances add up to around $800m a year - a crucial lifeline in a country where many essential goods are available only in hard currency stores.

One likely motivation for the new restrictions on the Cuban side was to stir up anti-Bush sentiment in Florida and entice John Kerry, his Democratic challenger, to pledge a more moderate stance - something he has yet to do.

Even in watered-down form, the Bush measures went down badly with the younger generation of Cubans in Florida. Andres Gomez, the head of a moderate exile group called the Antonio Maceo Brigade, told The Miami Herald: "Some 140,000 Cuban exiles visited the island last year; 100,000 of those lived in south Florida. This will mean many of those who can't travel to the island will vote against Bush, and for a candidate who allows travel to Cuba.''

Comments