Miami Cubans split on easing of restrictions
March 20, 1998
Heria's church sent donations after Hurricane Lilli hit Cuba in 1996
Web posted at: 8:31 p.m. EDT (2031 GMT)
MIAMI (CNN) -- Reflecting a deep ideological conflict over
how best to help families left behind in Cuba, Miami's Cuban
community was divided by news of expected U.S. policy changes
that would allow increased humanitarian aid to the island
nation and make it easier to deliver medicine and food.
President Clinton, responding to humanitarian concerns, also
wants to reverse a two-year-old ban on direct flights to Cuba
and on cash being sent back to the island by U.S.-based
Some Cuban exiles in Miami agree with easing the rules on
aid, arguing that their families suffer needlessly under
Cuba's crumbling economy. But others contend that increasing
humanitarian aid will only serve to further prop up President
Fidel Castro's Communist regime.
Because it is illegal to send U.S. dollars to families in
Cuba, their American relatives typically spend much more to
buy and ship clothes, toiletries and food there.
The Rev. Fernando Heria, a Cuban-born Catholic priest from
St. Thomas Church, favors easing aid restrictions. Like many
churches in Miami, his church organizes humanitarian aid
shipments to the island. For example, it sent massive
donations after Hurricane Lilli hit Cuba in 1996, just before
direct flights from the United States to Cuba were stopped.
"It will lessen our cost in bringing food and bringing
much-needed medicine," Heria said of the expected changes.
The moves also would benefit journalists, athletes and others
eligible to travel to the island. Those travelers must now
purchase tickets to intermediate destinations, raising the
cost of the trip. The prohibition on tourism in Cuba by
Americans remains in effect.
'They are hungry for democracy'
Direct flights to Cuba were stopped after Cubans shot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996
Many exiles feel torn over Clinton's proposal.
"I don't think the people themselves will ever see it," one
resident of Miami's Little Havana said.
In an interview on CNN's Headline News, Cuban-American Rep.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, said that for all practical
purposes, there is no embargo against Cuba, and the United
States should be tougher on Castro.
"The people of Cuba are hungry, but they are hungry for
democracy and for freedom, and we wish that President Clinton
would be a little bit tougher with the dictator instead of
trying to normalize relations with him," she said.
Anger remains over downed planes
Many people, including Ros-Lehtinen, are still angry that the
United States would so soon forgive Cuba for its actions that
prompted some of the restrictions.
The ban on direct flights and on dollar remittances to the
island were imposed two years ago after Cuban MiGs shot down
two unarmed Miami-based planes that were flying north of
Cuba. The four Cuban exiles aboard the planes, members of the
anti-Castro group Brothers to the Rescue, were killed.
"So what is the message the (Clinton) administration is
sending to the Castro government, that it is all right to
kill American citizens? Is this a reward?" asked Ninoska
Perez of the Cuban American National Foundation.
Brothers to the Rescue member Jose Basulto, who piloted a
third plane that was not shot down in the 1996 incident,
"This altogether is a hypocritical move by the Clinton
administration," he said. "Once again, it's a treason and a
slap in the face to those who have died four years ago which
were American citizens, were flying U.S. planes."
But Heria insists the expected move by the United States to
change its policies towards Cuba are the right moves,
suggesting they may even flag an early end to the nearly
40-year-old U.S. embargo against the island nation.
"They see the need of the people is a real one, independent
of the government," he said.
Correspondent Susan Candiotti contributed to this report.