By Michael E. Miller
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The March 28 event at the Biltmore Hotel, attended by about 250 people, was a milestone of sorts. Never had so many Cuban-American political activists gathered in the heart of el exilio to express opposition to the 41-year-old trade embargo against the government of Fidel Castro. They were joined by a prestigious roster of current and former members of Congress, ex-ambassadors, former high-ranking military officers, business executives, and scholars. Among the topics up for discussion: existing restrictions on the sale of food and medicine to Cuba; how the United States would benefit from lifting the embargo; prospects for U.S.-Cuba cooperation in the wars on drugs and terrorism; and how the 1996 Helms-Burton Law, which tightened the embargo, is hurting Cubans on the island.
For those many Cuban exiles who view the embargo as an article of anti-Castro faith, the conference was anathema, and a few showed up at the hotel in protest. Two of them, U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, took a rare public browbeating in a town where they often seem to have no critics. The censure may have been all the more stinging because some of it was delivered by a fellow Republican, Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona.
Last month Flake and sixteen other GOP members of Congress joined seventeen Democrats to form the Cuba Working Group for the purpose of reviewing U.S. policy toward Cuba. Topping the group's list of priorities: legalize all travel to the island and allow for private financing of agricultural and medical sales to the Castro government. (Currently only cash sales are allowed and travel to Cuba is illegal for all but a select class of U.S. citizens.)
A coterie of local Cuban Americans began devising "The Time Is Now" conference about a year ago. Among them was Alfredo Duran, president of the Cuban Committee for Democracy, a group favoring dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba. Another was Antonio Zamora, founder of the U.S./Cuba Legal Forum. Both are Miami lawyers and Bay of Pigs veterans. Other organizers included Silvia Wilhelm, president of Puentes Cubanos, which promotes humanitarian aid to Cuba, and Bernardo Benes, the Miami banker whom Presidents Carter and Reagan secretly sent to the island to meet with Castro and whose negotiations eventually led to the release of 3600 political prisoners (see "Twice Exiled," New Times, November 12, 1998). The Dante Fascell Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution, a unit of the University of Miami's North-South Center, became one of the main sponsors. As plans progressed the host committee grew to 50 people, most from Miami but others from Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.
Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart were not about to sit silently by. They staged a news conference at the Biltmore during one of the conference's morning sessions to tell the world that anyone working to end the embargo is essentially an agent of the Castro regime. "There are economic interests that are seeking to do business with the dictatorship and they would like the dictatorship to survive the dictator," said Diaz-Balart, according to the Associated Press. "They are working to obtain financing so they can consolidate a system which prohibits all dialogue, which prohibits any discussion of ideas [or] debates, and which prohibits free elections. We disagree with that." Outside the hotel about 50 protesters led by Miguel Saavedra, leader of the small but vocal anti-Castro group Vigilia Mambisa, called the conference participants "traitors."
The protest had long dissipated by the time the traitorous participants gathered around several dozen tables in the Grenada ballroom for lunch. Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.), one of the event's two luncheon speakers, had an announcement to make. "The Cold War is over," he declared. "We won!" Delahunt suggested celebrating the victory by spreading goodwill and lifting the embargo. "The reality is it creates suffering for the Cuban people," he said, adding that despite a ban on travel to Cuba, 100,000 U.S. citizens go there illegally each year. "This makes no sense at all!" he intoned, punctuating each word by pounding on the podium. Delahunt cited a poll that found 67 percent of the U.S. public believes American citizens should be able to travel to Cuba legally. An even higher percentage supports unrestricted sale of food and medicine.
Next up was Arizona Republican Jeff Flake. Before taking a U.S. House seat in 2001, he was executive director of the Goldwater Institute, a conservative public-policy research group that advocates reducing government and expanding individual liberties. A clean-cut Mormon, Flake has no farmers in his district itching to sell grain to the Cuban government. But here he was in Miami saying the embargo itself smacked of dictatorship. "Regardless of Cuba's form of government, there is no justification for imposing a Soviet-style bureaucracy on Americans who travel there, asking them where they are going, why they are going, who they will see, what their itinerary is, how much they will spend, et cetera. No American should be denied the right to see, firsthand, what a catastrophe socialism has wrought on that island."