Relatives ask: "Can you still send money to Cuba?'

Published Aug. 24, 1994|Updated Oct. 7, 2005

It was the middle of the afternoon Tuesday, and the woman, who was on foot, had gotten lost.

The temperature was 93 degrees and the sun was unrelenting, but she was determined to find this place. Relatives in Cuba were counting on her.

Finally, she found it.

"Is this Cuba Envio?" she asked. She was told it was. "Can you still send money to Cuba?" She was told she could.

Then the woman, 49-year-old Maria Teresa Mesa, plopped herself down and began the business of sending cash to Cuba. She took out five $50 bills _ $200 of it was going to her family; $39 was going to Cuba Envio.

Cuba Envio, which is just to the north and west of Little Havana, is one of several businesses known as envios in the United States that are licensed by the Treasury Department to handle cash transactions by U.S. residents to Cubans.

It adds up to a hefty sum.

The State Department estimates that each year as much as $450-million in cash reaches Cuban hands.

Now President Clinton wants to stop the cash flow.

In an effort to punish Cuban President Fidel Castro by further crippling Cuba's economy, Clinton on Saturday ordered an end to the cash transfers. Each U.S. household had been limited to sending $300 every three months.

Under his directive, all "family reunification" visits also were ordered stopped. According to news reports, visitors to Cuba routinely sneak in money to relatives.

Supporters of the policy shift say it hurts Castro. With no help from the former Soviet Union, and with no dollars coming in, they say the Cuban economy can only get worse.

That, they say, will lead to Castro's downfall.

Opponents say it hurts people who already are starving. And if things get worse in Cuba, the exodus that is under way now will continue.

On Friday, Clinton announced that Cubans no longer will be permitted to freely enter the United States. They will be housed indefinitely at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In a country where the monthly salary is about $2, dollars can come in mighty handy.

Which is why Mesa, who came to Florida in 1980 during the Mariel boatlift, walked the 14 blocks to Cuba Envio Tuesday afternoon. She has five sons on the island, and she said they have nothing to eat.

"They wrote to me a few days ago, saying, "Mother, don't send clothes. Send money,' " she said.

"I have a 90-year-old grandmother, and she doesn't have any shoes," said Mesa, a widow who works as a housekeeper.

The transaction took no more than five minutes, but Yamilet Guerra, who works at Cuba Envio, said it would be at least three weeks before the cash reaches Mesa's family.

It could take up to six weeks.

Cuba Envio charges a $35 fee for transfers to Havana, and $39 for the rest of Cuba. According to Guerra, the money is transferred to the Cuban government, which delivers the money to the family.

Guerra insisted the government doesn't take a cut. That's because the envios _ there are also some in Tampa _ help subsidize the Cuban deficit and provide much of its hard currency. For this reason they have long been a flash point in the Cuba debate. Customers depend on them as a lifeline to relatives on the island, while some exile leaders claim they help prop up Castro's regime.

Some Spanish-language media organizations have refused to sell advertising to the envios. Many have been fire-bombed.

Places like Cuba Envio also send clothing and medicine. The charge: $15 a pound. By mid-afternoon, Guerra said about a dozen people had visited Cuba Envio, which is an average day. The smallest transfer was $100, she said, while the largest was $280.

Tuesday night, a Treasury spokeswoman said the cash ban would take effect today.

To some people, it doesn't matter. Take, for example, Jose Manuel Gonzalez, a security guard at the Versailles Restaurant on Calle Ocho in Little Havana.

"Why would I send money to Cuba to a government that's oppressing my people? The money might get to my family," he said, "but it will benefit the government."

Mesa just knows her family needs her. "I keep hearing the news out of Cuba," she said. "You can imagine my nerves."

_ Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.