The Cuba debate permeates South Florida every day, but it took an unusual turn last Saturday when the Bush Administration, having learned that a summit of pro-engagement groups would take place at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, convened its own meeting at the same time, in the same hotel.
In effect, the Administration was using an event staged by an interest group — one that it belittles, at that — to provide a platform for its own message.
A seminar organized by the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, a center funded by the U.S. government to create studies and plans for the Cuban transition under authority of the Helms-Burton law, provided a setting for Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega to set forth the Administration’s Cuba policy.
The political setting was not a simple one for the Administration. Last July’s repatriation of 12 Cuban migrants who had hijacked a Cuban research vessel drew bitter criticism in Miami, and led to expressions of deeper discontent that the Administration had neither abrogated the migration accords negotiated under President Clinton nor implemented new policies to bring Cuba’s socialist government to an end. Cuban-American state legislators threatened the White House that their political support could evaporate if policy did not change.
Some in Miami expected that Mr. Noriega would announce bold new policies, but he reiterated the elements of current policy that National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice had stated in response to the Florida legislators: support for the embargo, tougher enforcement of the travel ban, expulsion of Cuban diplomats, additional aid to dissidents, and appointment of a new director of Radio and TV Marti.
Mr. Noriega strengthened his hand rhetorically by embracing local legislators while dismissing “self-appointed,” unelected Cuban-American leaders who express different views. He pledged that the Administration would use the leverage of the embargo not simply to press for reform during a Cuban transition, but to “dismantle the apparatus” that sustains the current government. Like his predecessor Otto Reich who had visited Miami two months earlier, he tried to discourage criticism of the Administration’s policies by warning that Fidel Castro wants his opponents to be “doubting each other rather than dogging him.”
Finally, Mr. Noriega disparaged those who attended the summit by calling them “newcomers” who never crossed his path in his own years of working with his Miami allies on Cuba policy matters.
In fact, the summit’s audience included two Bay of Pigs veterans who were imprisoned in Cuba after the failed invasion; a retired Marine Corps general who, early in his career, served at the Guantanamo base during the Cuban missile crisis; President Gerald Ford’s Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America; a Member of Congress who visited Hector Palacios, Oswaldo Alfonso, and other dissidents in Palacios’ Havana home before they were imprisoned in March; a former general counsel of the Cuban American National Foundation; a pre-eminent advocate of human rights in the Americas; dozens of Cuban Americans and others who have conducted exchanges between American professionals and people of faith and their Cuban counterparts; and the American Catholic Bishop who during the past decade has managed the delivery of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Cuba through Cuba’s Catholic Church. President Jimmy Carter sent a representative and a statement. Another “newcomer,” Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo — a prisoner in Cuba for two decades, and now the only Miami activist who has ever returned to Cuba to attempt to build a legal opposition movement — made his presence felt from Havana through a statement read by his daughter.
As in the first summit 18 months ago, the group discussed human rights, security, economics, and forms of engagement that can help people in Cuba and serve the American national interest. Many compared notes on the impact of the Administration’s termination of licensing for people-to-people programs. Some questioned whether Cuba’s dissidents are helped or harmed by Washington’s strong embrace. Many enjoyed the moral support of a pro-engagement gathering that, locals said, would not have been possible in Miami just a few years ago. And all discussed the news from Havana: In spite of the March arrests of many organizers of the Varela project (a pro-reform petition drive), 14,000 additional signatures were just delivered to Cuba’s National Assembly.
A large field across the street from the Biltmore had been barricaded by police the night before. The day of the conference, several dozen pro-embargo protesters gathered there, organized by the Miami group Vigilia Mambisa. In late afternoon Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart joined the group, which chanted peacefully and marched back and forth behind the barricades, over which was draped a sign that read: “No to the Varela Project.”
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