The Cuban American Commission for Family Rights is a broad based alliance of Cuban Americans who got together after the so-called Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, headed by US Secretary of State Colin Powell, made their recommendations to President Bush. Thousands of Cuban Americans living in the United States were furious when they heard what the Commission recommended and especially the regulations that hurt the Cuban family.
Among the measures, effective from June 30th, 2004 headed by US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, directly affecting the family are the following:
- To limit family visit to Cuba to one (1) trip every three years under a specific license; individuals would be eligible to apply for a specific license three years after their last visit to Cuba; new arrivals from Cuba would be eligible for a specific license three years after leaving Cuba.
- To limit the definition of “family” for the purposes of visits to immediate family (including grandparents, grandchildren, parents, siblings, spouses, and children); and
- To reduce the current authorized per diem amount (the authorized amount allowed for food and lodging expenses for travel in Cuba) from $164 per day to $50 per day and limited to 14 days the travels.
Bernie Dwyer, Radio Havana Cuba called Silvia Wilhelm, executive director of the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights by telephone to North Carolina; Monday, 2nd August to find out more about the organization which views the Bush measures as anti-family; un-American and anti-Cuban.
[Bernie Dwyer] Will you tell our listeners exactly how the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights came about?
[Silvia Wilhelm] The Cuban America Commission for Family Rights is a broad based alliance of Cuban Americans who got together after the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba made their recommendations to President Bush.
We were irate when we heard what that Commission recommended and, very specifically, we came together to defend the integrity of the Cuban family. The recommendations made by the Bush administration are absolutely anti-family; they are un-American and they are certainly anti-Cuban. And we, as Cuban Americans have to defend the unity of our family. A lot of us have family in Cuba and even if we didn’t, we still have to defend many whose voices are not heard.
[BD] Explain how this is actually affecting people? Are they very upset?
[SW] People are very upset about it and I would dare say that they are just beginning to understand the ramifications of this new law. A lot of them haven’t really felt it because they had traveled to Cuba prior to it or maybe they are thinking of going to Cuba sometime in August or even next year. Then they will realize that in most cases they will be unable to travel, and that is going to have a major effect on our community. It is having it already.
If you read the press in Miami, I would say that the majority of letters that are written to the editor are denouncing these new measures: very few letters support it. And even those who are supporting it always try to give an explanation and say: “Oh, we do understand, it is disastrous for the individual but we do have a higher purpose ”
In terms of the community, there have been several demonstrations in Miami against these regulations and I expect there will be more.
People don’t fully understand what this means. They don’t understand that these regulations are retroactive. So if you went to see your mother last year and you think you can go next year because you didn’t go this year, you cannot: you cannot go for another two more years. So the full impact is still not being realized in our community but I would say that it’s disastrous.
[BD] Does your organization have any political basis?
[SW] We want to change policy so in that sense we are political. Either we want the Bush Administration to repudiate these regulations and understand that they were badly advised. To tell you the truth, we would like to elect a new president of the United States. But we are not partisan. As a commission, we don’t support one candidate versus another but as individuals, we obviously support a candidate. I have been a Democrat all my life and I am not at all in favor of the present administration in Washington so I plan to vote for John Kerry in November.
[BD] Do you think that the recent anti-Cuban measures will affect Bush’s vote in the state of Florida?
[SW] Without a doubt, it will affect Bush’s vote in Florida State. As a matter of fact, the latest poll showed that there has been a decline of about 16% in the Cuban American support for President Bush. If you look at the support he received in the 2000 election versus the poll measured right now, he has lost 16% of that support and I would imagine that between now and November, he’s going to lose more than that.
In addition to that, one thing that was never part of the equation when the advisers advised Bush to go into this mode, are the thousands of Cuban Americans who left Cuba after 1980, who have families in Cuba and travel to Cuba and have since become American citizens. We understand that in a lot of those cases, those people have not registered to vote and if they do, we are talking about, by conservative estimates, probably 35,000 people who fall into that category. Now, as to whether they will vote Republican or Democrat, I don’t know but I would imagine that if they are impacted by these regulations, there is only one way to vote.
[BD] Are the right-wing anti-Cuban groups expressing any opinion about these measures?
[SW] I think that in the majority of cases, those people don’t have any relatives in Cuba so it doesn’t affect them personally. They also have this strange way of thinking that anybody who stayed behind in Cuba and never left is irrelevant and should be discarded, which is a very peculiar way of thinking because after all, we are all Cubans and have to make the decisions we have to make with our lives. So we are all part of the Cuban nation.
But even they, realizing that the American people cannot relate to these measures, that the American press has rejected the measures in its totality, then, in their speech they are saying “we understand that this is detrimental to families blah, blah, blah: but we have a higher purpose, that is to bring down the Cuban government: therefore the means justify the end”. Of course the end is not what they think it going to be. It’s not going to do anything to the government but it is going to hurt the people very much.
[SW] Can you describe some of the activities that you have organized in Miami?
As part of the Commission, we put together a press conference denouncing these measures a week after they came out. On May 20th, we held a press conference in Miami, and within 48 hours 400 people had gathered in a hotel in Miami. We thought that was pretty important. It had never happened so quickly before or with such incredible support from the community.
A week last Saturday, we put together what has been called the major demonstration in Miami against the measures. That took place in front of US Congress member, Lincoln Diaz Balart’s office. By conservative estimates, between 500 and 600 people marched up and down 87th Avenue basically repudiating these regulations and requesting they be overturned. Basically, they were doing what Americans can do: protest civilly and demand their rights. It made the local and national press. We thought it was quite effective. Last Saturday, another group put together a demonstration in front of US Congress member Illeana Ros Lehtinen’s office.
But we have other things in the works. We have an event in August and we have an event in September, which will be quite a big event, denouncing these regulations. We plan to bring a national key-note speaker. I am not at liberty to say who it is right now but I m pretty sure that it will be quite an important event in Miami.
[BD] Is there any form of threat or counter-protest from the right-wing groups there?
[SW] Last Saturday there were about 30 people who put together a counter-protest at a different site. They didn’t come to our site. There were no more than 30 people. From what I know, there have been no counter protests of any size. There were hardly any at this Saturday’s event.
[BD] Lincoln Diaz Balart was at Miami airport when several hundred Cuban Americans were trying to travel to Cuba. How do you think he is affected by all this?
[SW] I don’t think he is going to have change of heart. This is not something he doesn’t believe in. He’s a hardliner against Cuba and I don’t foresee any change in his position whatsoever. I think he was very surprised by the incident at Miami airport because for the first time, people from Miami, some of them his constituents, really confronted him at the airport. In fact some very bad language took place and he was called a few not very nice adjectives because people were so frustrated. I was actually at the airport that day but I left 15 minutes before he arrived.
He was flying from Washington to Miami and he was told what was happening at the airport. So he had no choice but to stand in front of 400 of his constituents at the request of the airport officials. I think that he did not expect what happened. It was pretty ugly and I have to give the Miami press some kudos about the fact that they did publish it in the paper. Usually our press is very slick about not covering some important events when they don’t fit their line but they did cover this.
I don’t expect Diaz Balart to change at all. As a matter of fact, after our demonstration in front of his office, he made a statement that things were going to get even tighter.
[BD] It seems to me that there is a different voice coming out of Miami now. We are used to hearing the right-wing anti-Cuban voices. Is this the first time there has been public protest from the ordinary Cuban American residents there?
[BD] No, I really don’t think so. It might be the case that these are the biggest demonstrations that have happened but I don’t think it’s the first time. I think that a lot of people for many, many years have been showing a different face of the Cuban American community and a different position. I think Washington has heard it loud and clear now.
In fact, three years ago we put together a conference in Miami that was historic. A group of us Cuban Americans put on the first conference opposing the US embargo against Cuba at the Biltmore Hotel. Over 400 people attended and it made history in our city. We did another one last year that also made history. This has been going on for quite a while. It’s just now it seems to be of larger proportions.
[BD] Is this because these measures go right to the heart of Cuban American families?
[SW] I want to call it the Elián 2. Obviously, you are very aware of the Elián episode*, it cut to the heart of the problem of family separation. Now we are once again dealing with the same issue. It will backfire: it has no way but to backfire because every time you get into the business of dividing families, it usually turns out to be a loser at the end of the day.
[BD] So, you and the Commission for Cuban American Family Rights are going to continue protesting?
[SW] Absolutely, we will continue fighting until November 2nd. And on November 3rd, when we wake up in the morning and find out who our next president is, we will regroup and we will have different strategies depending on who the president is. We are not going away any time soon.
(This interview was aired on Radio Havana Cuba on August 2nd and 3rd, 2004)