U.S. soldier fights travel restrictions

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MIAMI – National Guard Staff Sgt. Carlos Lazo, who couldn’t visit his sons in Cuba two years ago because of U.S. policy, wrapped up a lobbying mission to Washington this past week that culminated with an appearance on CNN.

Lazo led a group of about 15 Cuban Americans to encourage lawmakers in the new Democrat-controlled Congress to lift the restrictions on family travel that allow Cuban exiles to visit immediate family on the island only once every three years.

Lazo, whose sons eventually came to live with him in Seattle, said he is optimistic that U.S. policy toward Cuba travel could change soon.

“This is a labor of love, and we wanted to let all the new congressional representatives know what’s going on,” Lazo said in an interview Friday while visiting Miami. “You can sense that the opinion in Miami is for lifting these restrictions. Those in favor of these restrictions are fewer and becoming isolated. There is tremendous optimism and enthusiasm.”

While in Washington, the group dropped in on Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., a proponent of the tightened sanctions, approved by the White House in 2004 in the months leading up to President Bush’s reelection.

Lazo said Ros-Lehtinen invited the group into her office, even though they didn’t have an appointment. They chatted and sipped Cuban coffee. While the meeting was cordial and Ros-Lehtinen heard them out, they didn’t change her mind.

“Folks should not misinterpret my gracious manner with acquiescence or agreement with their position,” Ros-Lehtinen said Friday.

Ros-Lehtinen acknowledged that with a new Democratic Congress, it will be more difficult for supporters of the U.S. embargo to hold the line because several anti-embargo Democrats are heading committees.

“I told the group that I always feared that when the Democrats took over in the House, that would make our job as advocates of strong policy against Fidel Castro that much more difficult,” she said.

Ros-Lehtinen said some Democrats “wrongfully believe diplomatic channels and a softening of the embargo could have a positive impact on an evil, brutal dictatorship like the Castro brothers.”

Nevertheless, Lazo’s group brought attention to the travel restrictions’ unpopularity. CNN’s Spanish network interviewed him Thursday night. And Rep. Jim McDermott, a Democrat who represents Lazo’s district in Washington state, gave a speech on the House floor Thursday night criticizing the 2004 sanctions on family travel and remittances. McDermott used Lazo’s case to make his point.

“The administration thinks that by cutting off families in Cuba from loved ones in the United States that we will encourage the overthrow of Castro,” McDermott said in his speech. “Our policy regarding Cuba is hurting innocent people there and here – not the government we have been trying to overthrow for a generation. It has hurt one of my constituents, an Iraq war hero who came to America from Cuba 15 years ago, risking his life to get here on a raft floating in the ocean.”

In 2005, the U.S. government refused to let Lazo, who had survived the bloody battle at Fallujah, travel to Cuba to see his two sons. Lazo joined the Washington state National Guard after arriving in the United States in 1992, but his family remained in Cuba.

His sons, Carlos Rafael, 18, and Carlos Manuel, 20, were allowed to come to the United States in 2005 on a three-month visa under an agreement with the State Department and the Cuban government. They decided to stay and now live with their father, Lazo said.

“We didn’t want to take a chance that we would go another three years without seeing each other,” Lazo explained of his sons’ decision to remain in Seattle.

Others on the lobbying mission to Washington included former state Rep. Annie Betancourt; Silvia Wilhelm, Executive Director of the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights; and exile lawyer Alfredo Duran.

“The immense majority of Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits believe strongly that no government has the right to interfere in family reunification,” Wilhelm said in an e-mail. “We, as Americans of Cuban descent, urge members of Congress and the administration to revoke a policy that is un-American and cruel.”

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