While the US keeps up the pressure on Castro, thousands of Cubans play chess in the square

More than 20 US agents are tracing illegal money to Fidel Castro while two are tracking Osama bin Laden.David Usborne reports
Click to follow
The Independent US

A strange - but not so strange, if you are a student of American presidential politics - fact about the foreign policy priorities of the Bush administration surfaced last week, triggering not little controversy on Capitol Hill.

A strange - but not so strange, if you are a student of American presidential politics - fact about the foreign policy priorities of the Bush administration surfaced last week, triggering not little controversy on Capitol Hill.

There are five times as many US agents tracking the movement of illegal money into the pockets of Fidel Castro as there are investigating the flow of riches to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

"Astounding," boomed Senator Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota. "Just stunning," agreed William Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat in the House of Representatives.

In other words, it is business as usual between Cuba and the US - or, as President Castro himself phrased it in a public appearance on 19 April, the 43rd anniversary of America's botched Bay of Pigs invasion of his country in 1961 - between the "ant" and the "elephant". Terrorism and Iraq may have engulfed Washington since 9/11 but Communist Cuba remains an itch it still can't help scratching.

Not that Cuba is doing anything to ease matters. Last Monday, a court in the eastern city of Ciega de Avila jailed 10 Cubans for allegedly agitating against President Castro. Last year, the regime imprisoned 75 so-called dissidents at once, drawing protests from the European Union. Nothing would suit the White House better than a peaceful revolution finally to oust President Castro, especially in this election year. But if there are stirrings of rebellion, President Castro is doing all he can to crush them.

And he continues to display his usual bravado in spite of the impoverished state of his people. Hence, the world was told yesterday how the previous day, his island broke its own record for playing the largest ever game of simultaneous chess. Guinness World Records will have to update the previous record set in 2002 when President Castro was one of 11,320 people who took part in a mass chess rally in Havana.

Pictures from the event in Santa Clara showed 13,000 amateurs and professionals moving chess pieces in front of the tomb of Che Guevara, the Argentinian-born freedom fighter who was at President Castro's side in the march on Havana in 1959. The star of the event was the Russian Grand Master Anatoly Karpov, strolling the aisles making moves in 11 games at once. President Castro himself was missing but his face loomed from a huge cotton banner hung between trees on the square.

The money-tracking revelations are a fresh reminder of how incessant is the campaign in Washington to oust the Cuban leader. In response to inquiries from Congress, the Treasury Department admitted that its Office of Foreign Assets Control had almost two dozen agents tracing incidents of monies going to Cuba in violation of the American embargo of the island. That compares with two trying to track money flowing to Bin Laden and two untangling the amassed assets of Saddam.

"The magnitude of the discrepancy is just stunning," said Mr Delahunt, a member of the bipartisan Cuba Working Group, which favours lifting US restrictions on travel to the island. "We're chasing old ladies on bicycle trips in Cuba when we should be concentrating on using a significant tool against shadowy terrorist organisations."

Nothing, however, will induce the White House to ease the pressure. The reason is simple: there is a presidential election in November, and the Cuban-American community in Florida could - thanks to the razor-thin numbers involved in winning or losing that state - decide the outcome on its own. Cuban-Americans are already angry at Bush for not doing enough to discomfort President Castro.

Indeed, watch in the next days and weeks for the Bush administration to clamp down even harder on Havana. Today, the President is expected to receive confidential findings from a panel, set up six months ago under the chairmanship of the Secretary of State Colin Powell, to examine new avenues to nudge President Castro - who is 77 but apparently still vigorous - from power.

The panel, the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, is expected to recommend freezing for at least six months the ability of Cuban-Americans to remit money to relatives still living on the island. At least $100m - but may be 10 times that much - is sent to the country each year by Cubans living in the US. It is money, critics say, that helps to prop up President Castro.

It would be another setback to proponents of normalising relations with Havana. And it would hurt many Cubans. "It would have a terrible humanitarian impact in Cuba and it would send a signal that the administration wants to make life difficult for Cubans in the hope that it would bring about political change in Cuba," said Philip Peters of the Lexington Institute, who is a supporter of better relations with Cuba.

But the move would have political logic for President Bush. Some in the Cuban-American community may protest but the hardliners - especially those who came to the US straight after the revolution - will applaud the move. And it is among those that Mr Bush has his all-important voter base.