Washington President Bush tightened U.S. travel restrictions against Cuba on Thursday, a move likely to strengthen his election-year standing in politically important Florida and heighten tensions with Fidel Castro's communist regime.
Bush's order, less than two weeks before Florida's presidential primary, 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.
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.
Castro's most ardent Cuban-American opponents represent a vital voting bloc in Florida, the state whose contested election results in 2000 gave the presidency to Bush. Since taking office, Bush has traveled 19 times to Florida, where his brother, Jeb, is governor.
The United States has enforced a trade embargo against Cuba for more than four decades, and relations have deteriorated in the past year.
The State Department recently canceled talks on migration issues that usually occur every six months. U.S. officials said Cuba had not been cooperating in achieving the goal of safe, orderly and legal immigration.
The Bush administration has also 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."
In his order, Bush said Castro's government "has over the course of its 45-year existence repeatedly used violence and the threat of violence to undermine U.S. policy interests. This same regime continues in power today, and has since 1959 maintained a pattern of hostile actions contrary to U.S. policy interests."
Bush said that over the past year, Cuba has taken a series of 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 had said repeatedly that the United States intended to invade Cuba, despite explicit denials from the United States.
Restricting boat travel
The president noted that the United States had warned Cuba last May that any political moves that resulted in a mass migration would be viewed as a hostile act.
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 cited long-standing U.S. grievances against Cuba, calling it a state-sponsor of terrorism and saying that it has demonstrated "a ready and reckless willingness to use excessive force" against U.S. and Cuban citizens. He pointed to incidents in the 1990s, including the shooting down of two unarmed U.S.-registered civilian aircraft, the use of force against U.S.-registered vessels and the sinking of an unarmed Cuban vessel that resulted in the deaths of 41 Cuban citizens in 1994.