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Miami Cubans split on easing of restrictions

Church donations
Heria's church sent donations after Hurricane Lilli hit Cuba in 1996   
March 20, 1998
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 exiles.

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, agreed.

"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.


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