Heretics in the House

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

The ending sounded like a beginning: "We will do it again, and we will not cease." That was the way Antonio Zamora closed the Miami premiere of a production titled "The Time Is Now to Reassess U.S. Policy Toward Cuba." It was a lengthy title for a one-day conference that was years in coming. Indeed it was difficult for some people to accept that it had come at all.

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."

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 Times two 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.

The only ardent supporter of the embargo who engaged in genuine dialogue was lawyer Nick Gutierrez, Jr., whose family's sugar mill was confiscated by the Castro government in 1960. One exchange occurred during a question-and-answer period after a presentation by Lisandro Perez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, and Max Castro, a research associate at the University of Miami's North-South Center. Gutierrez criticized Castro's use of the word "moderate" to describe a strategy that would lead to the dismantling of the embargo. "What is so “moderate' about a policy that promotes relations with a totalitarian government that has been repeatedly condemned by the United Nations Human Rights Commission?" Gutierrez asked.

Max Castro cited the denunciation of the embargo by U.S. Catholic bishops and decades of overwhelming votes by the United Nations General Assembly condemning it. "That's what's moderate about it," he huffed.

Rep. Jeff Flake expects the U.S. House of Representatives to vote on lifting the travel ban in late June or July and on allowing loans for agricultural sales sometime after that. The Bush administration is currently conducting a review of United States policy toward Cuba and has hinted it may try to tighten sanctions. But the Cuba Working Group plans to present its own policy review, with vastly different conclusions, over the next few months.

When it was time to adjourn, Antonio Zamora announced that transcripts of presentations made at "The Time Is Now" conference would be sent to Congress and the White House. As for the two policy reviews now under way, Zamora was resolute in his determination to have all points of view represented. "We will have our voices heard," he vowed.

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