Cubans complain sanctions are hitting them while missing mark of Castro

September 02, 1994|By Cox News Service

HAVANA -- The new U.S. economic sanctions aimed at bludgeoning President Fidel Castro will end up battering ordinary Cubans much more than the country's Communist leader, diplomats and Havana residents say.

In an effort to deprive the Castro government of dollars at a time when the Cuban economy is in ruin, the Clinton administration last week banned Cuban-Americans from sending money to relatives here or bringing cash to them during visits to Havana.

The action, taken in response to the increase in Cuban refugees heading to South Florida, was aimed at putting additional pressure on Mr. Castro and speeding the demise of communism on the island.

To date, however, the new steps have hit Havana residents hardest.

"It's not hurting Castro, it's hurting the people," said Alma Gutierrez, a mother of two who receives money and antibiotics from South Florida relatives. "People rely on the dollars. There's no dollars to be made here."

While the people hurt, the government may not be affected since it receives most of its hard currency from international tourism unconnected to the United States.

"It will affect the government, but a very, very little bit, hardly at all," said Toshimasa Kamada, consul at the Japanese Embassy in Havana. "To the Cuban people, there will be more of an effect."

The net effect of the new U.S. policy is this: Even as Cubans become increasingly discontented with Mr. Castro, those relying relatives' dollars from the United States are angry with President Clinton.

"It's infuriating," said Havana resident Armando Mesa, 15, whose mother missed her yearly trip to Cuba from Miami because of the new measures, which include a ban on U.S.-based charter flights to Havana. "It's ruining the family."

The Cuban government directly receives about $30 million a year in special fees from the charter flights, used mainly by South Florida Cubans. It indirectly benefits from at least $200 million that the United States estimates is sent by Cuban-Americans to relatives in Cuba. The U.S. government estimates that 1.8 million Cubans -- 10 percent of the population -- receive remittances from the United States.

"The flow of U.S. dollars will probably be drastically interrupted" in the short term, a State Department official said. But he acknowledged that "eventually," Cubans will find new ways to get money inside Cuba, much as Haitians have found out how to get gas despite a worldwide oil embargo.

Cuban-Americans may end up depositing money into bank accounts in third countries, such as Mexico or Canada, from where it then could be sent to Cuba. They also can travel to third countries and take regular flights to Havana.

In any event, most of the Cuban government's hard currency comes from the country's $500-million-a-year tourism industry, the Japanese consul said. That is not affected by the new U.S. sanctions, since most tourists are not Americans.

Most everything of value in Cuba, including food, is sold at dollar stores, where sales are in U.S. currency exclusively.

For example, in all of Havana there are three stores that sell ground beef at a cost of $4 a pound. Yet Cubans earn pesos -- and not many of those. An average salary is about 160 pesos, or $1.60, a month. A good salary is 500 pesos, or $5, a month.

In the countryside, farmers do not produce because government-controlled prices are too low. So there's little food for sale.

On the streets of even the most depressed Latin American nations, peasants can be seen selling fruit and vegetables. In Cuba, there's nothing to buy outside hotels and dollar stores.

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