During a visit to Miami May 20, George W. Bush announced that his administration would not yield to the majority U.S. public opinion and end the blockade against Cuba. Bush raised $2 million dollars for the GOP during his tour.

In what is widely seen as an election move, the Bush administration is increasing tensions with Cuban President Fidel Castro and the socialist nation. Bush’s brother Jeb faces a tough gubernatorial reelection race and is courting votes from South Florida’s Cuban community, a long-time base for the Republican ultra-right. Anti-Castro extremists and even terrorist organizations have enjoyed freedom to operate in Miami.

But the Florida Cuban community is changing. According to one recent poll, 52 percent say new measures should replace the embargo, and the community is evenly split on lifting travel restrictions.

“The environment now is definitely changing,” the pollster Bendixen told The Sun Sentinel. “You have a Cuban-American community that is not as reactionary as it once was.”

The historic visit of former President Jimmy Carter to Cuba last week gave momentum to broad forces in favor of ending the blockade. In the House, the bipartisan group of 40 Congressional representatives, which had formed a Cuba Working Group, is pushing legislation to end the embargo.

Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) announced that he will hold hearings in June on the “Bridges to the Cuban People” bill, which is co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of 26 Senators. The legislation would authorize unrestricted trade of food, farm equipment, agricultural commodities and medicines, as well as remove travel restrictions on U.S. citizens.

The Bush administration suffered a blow when Carter said that recent claims of Cuban bioterrorism were false. Carter also visited the lab in question, which is a world-class medical center that makes vaccines for children. So discredited was the charge that Bush didn’t even mention it in his Miami speech.

“The bioterror claims were a smoke screen to derail Carter’s trip,” said Art Heitzer, chair of the National Lawyers Guild Cuba subcommittee. Heitzer told the World he attended a national strategy meeting on Cuba in Washington, D.C., May 20, along with National Council of Churches President Robert Edgar and a number Congresspeople, including Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), an early supporter for an end to the embargo. Plans are underway for a Sept. 17 People’s Summit on Cuba, Heitzer said. “People-to-people exchanges are very important, because at least half come back as activists” wanting to change the U.S. policies toward Cuba, Heitzer said.

But the Bush administration is plowing ahead with its enforcement of the travel ban. Thousands of Americans have traveled to Cuba without government interference, but recently the Treasury Department, under whose auspices travel is regulated, sent out letters threatening fines on some travelers.

Three members of Milwaukee’s Central United Methodist Church (CUMC), who were commissioned by CUMC to participate in the 100th anniversary of their sister church in Havana, in January 1999, are now being threatened with fines of up to $7,500 each. According to Attorney Sandra Edhlund, the three, Dollora Greene-Evans, William Ferguson, Jr., and Theron Mills, consider the escalating U.S. government attempts to interfere with their travel to Cuba to be unconstitutional.

Edhlund told the World that people can fight this type of harassment by contacting their own Congressional delegation and Director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control Richard Newcomb, Dept. of Treasury, 1500 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington DC 20220.

While Bush is putting more money into enforcement of the unpopular travel ban, there are bills in Congress to cut the funding for enforcement. Edhlund encouraged grassroots pressure on Congress to lift the travel ban and end the embargo. “We have to get out the story. It is the U.S. government that is harassing U.S. citizens for going to Cuba, not the Cuban government. It goes against every level of freedom,” Edhlund said.

The author can be reached at talbano@pww.org