Heretics in the House

They came to Miami. They gathered publicly. They showed no fear. And they trashed the Cuba embargo.

Moreover the embargo wastes valuable law-enforcement personnel while making criminals out of elderly Midwesterners and scofflaws of exiles. "Our nation's top experts in antiterrorism are also in charge of tracking down travelers to Cuba," Flake said. "They are tracking down grandmothers from Iowa who are going on biking trips in Cuba." In contrast, he pointed out, the travel ban is not enforced against Cuban Americans who routinely make multiple trips to the island each year. "I'm glad it doesn't apply [to Cuban Americans] because we should encourage, not penalize, family visits and family charity. But I don't want the travel ban to apply to the rest of America either." He also reminded the audience that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops stands in formal opposition to the embargo. He even paraphrased Pope John Paul II: "Open the doors to Cuba." Flake received a standing ovation.

Afterward in the lobby, as he waited for a cab to the airport, the congressman explained why a Republican from the Southwest would care so much about the embargo. "It just bothers me," he shrugged. "I'm just a fan of personal freedom." He also doesn't like its effect on his constituents. "They have to go through a cumbersome licensing process," he said. "Or cheat and go through Mexico or another country." Moreover it makes the GOP look bad. "We have an inconsistent foreign policy," he added, citing the extensive trade relations between the United States and China. "It hurts our party. And it hurts Cubans."

Delahunt was less diplomatic away from the podium. In fact he was incensed, particularly about an article he read in the Financial Timestwo days before the conference. In it Ileana Ros-Lehtinen accused Delahunt and the Cuba Working Group of creating "another forum to promote ideas on how not to help the Cuban people and keep Fidel Castro in power.... They want to use the suffering of the Cuban people to maintain Castro in power and to lift the economic sanctions against the tyrant."

Delahunt could not abide this. "Balderdash!" he fumed. "It's inaccurate and reflective of the stridency and lack of respect that exist in some quarters of the Cuban-exile community. It shows a lack of understanding of civil discourse." He suggested that Ros-Lehtinen could have exercised some leadership by attending the conference and discussing the issues.

Had she done so, she would have heard Delahunt's assessment of her knowledge of the island. "Her statements have an aura of Alice in Wonderland," he observed. "Her understanding of what is happening in Cuba is wrong." She and Diaz-Balart, he chided, are ignorant of the fact that very little support for the embargo exists among ordinary Cubans on the island.

Delahunt referred to a meeting he had with Cuban dissidents in April 2001, during a trip to Havana with two Republican members of Congress. Among the Cubans was writer and political activist Marta Beatriz Roque, jailed in 1999 for her role in authoring the daring manifesto The Homeland Belongs to Us All. "She said, “Please tell Ileana and Lincoln that while we appreciate their support, they don't know what they're talking about.'" He offered some advice: "It's time for Ileana and Lincoln to go to Cuba!"

"Now I have to go get educated," Delahunt concluded as he hustled to another room to listen to Phil Peters, a State Department appointee under two Republican administrations (Reagan and George H.W. Bush) and now vice president of the Lexington Institute, another conservative think tank. Peters was at the conference to speak about the possibilities for U.S.-Cuba cooperation in the wars on drugs and terrorism.

The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, imposed in 1961 during the Kennedy administration, has always been a bipartisan affair, but in recent years pro-embargo Cuban Americans have come to associate it with the GOP. One reason is that in 1995 House Speaker Newt Gingrich led the Republicans in forging the Helms-Burton Law, which tightened the sanctions and effectively transferred control over Cuba policy from the White House to Congress. President Clinton signed the legislation, but any capital it earned him among exiles vanished four years later along with Elian Gonzalez after federal agents returned the boy to his father. When Republican George W. Bush became president, the embargo seemed as secure as ever. During his campaign he even talked about strengthening it.

But that was not the message delivered by Alberto Coll, who served as principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict under President George H.W. Bush. Coll currently is dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the U.S. Naval War College. He is also a Cuban American. "We need to abandon the strategy of war and adopt a purely political strategy toward Cuba," he proclaimed during a late-afternoon speech in the Biltmore's stately Alhambra Room. Trade sanctions only fueled "the deadly flight of Cubans via the Straits of Florida," he lamented. "For the sake of harassing Castro -- because that's all we're doing -- [embargo proponents] are willing to sharpen the hardship and suffering of the Cuban people."

Only once did conference participants witness anything even remotely disruptive. A man sporting a tennis visor stood up in the middle of a talk by Robert Muse, a Washington, D.C., attorney and specialist on the Cuban economy, and accused Muse of spreading "socialist propaganda." The instigator, who identified himself as Jesus Chamber Ramirez, was escorted out of the hotel by Coral Gables police officers.

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