WASHINGTON – President Bush gave the federal government new powers to keep American boats out of Cuba (search), a step meant to deny the island nation the foreign currency it desperately needs and one certain to worsen relations with Havana.
Bush listed a long list of grievances with Cuba, some of them decades old, in explaining his Thursday evening move.
Some people smelled politics: Bush needs to win Florida in the election this year, and toughening his stance on Cuba can help him win favor with voters there.
"This administration is clearly interested in the Cuban-American vote," said Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation (search) in Miami. "Many Cuban-Americans had a lot of expectations about this White House, and unfortunately, most of them have not been met. And now the administration is scrambling to put together some type of comprehensive policy."
Scores, perhaps even hundreds, of yachts sail to Cuba from the United States without permission each year, most of them docking at the Marina Hemingway (search) in western Havana. Most days, a few American-based yachts can be seen docked at the marina, though not a single vessel flying a U.S. flag was spotted late Thursday afternoon.
The marina "is basically designed for U.S. pleasure craft. Most of them go for sexual tourism and a little bit of fishing on the side," Garcia said, adding that he welcomed Bush's decision.
The president gave a speech in the Rose Garden last October in which he promised to step up enforcement of existing restrictions against the communist government. White House officials said Thursday's action was one result.
Bush's action expands the government's authority to prevent the unauthorized departure of Cuban-bound ships from U.S. waters. U.S. authorities would be empowered to inspect any vessel in U.S. territorial waters, place guards on ships and take possession under certain circumstances.
Bush directed Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to develop new rules to keep "unauthorized U.S. vessels" out of Cuban territorial waters.
The president said the passage of American boats into Cuban waters could bring injury or death to anyone on the vessels, "due to the potential use of excessive force, including deadly force, against them by the Cuban military." Crossing into Cuban territorial waters is already against U.S. law for unauthorized vessels, he said.
Moreover, such boats and ships bring money and commerce into Cuba, which runs contrary to U.S. policy aiming to "deny resources to the repressive Cuban government," Bush said. Castro's government may use such cash to support terrorist activities, he said.
Bush said Castro's government had used sometimes deadly force against American and Cuban citizens over the past decade and might do so again. Such an incident "could threaten a disturbance of international relations," Bush said.
Over the past year, Bush said, Cuba has taken steps to destabilize relations with the United States, such as threatening to rescind migration accords and to close the U.S. interests section in Havana. Further, he said top Cuban officials have said repeatedly that the United States intended to invade Cuba, despite explicit denials from the United States.
The United States has enforced a trade embargo against Cuba for more than four decades, and relations have been deteriorating over the last year.
The State Department recently canceled talks on migration issues, which normally are held every six months. U.S. officials said Cuba has not been cooperating in achieving the goal of safe, orderly and legal immigration.
The Bush administration has accused Cuba of meddling in Latin America, sometimes in collaboration with the country's main South American ally, Venezuela.
The action against Cuba was hailed by Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., a leading anti-Castro lawmaker. He said it was "another clear sign of President Bush's commitment to enforcement of the law and his support for democracy in Cuba."