Posted on Sun, Apr. 01, 2007 Miami Herald
BY LAURA MORALES
The U.S. travel ban to Cuba incites passions at both ends of South Florida's political spectrum. But having U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, who hard-line exiles consider an adversary, sitting on a stage in the heart of Little Havana Saturday marked a first.
Flake, a libertarian Republican from Arizona who has traveled to Cuba four times and has pushed Congress for years to end the travel ban, took part in a debate over the travel ban Saturday at the Tower Theater. He sought to make a case that banning travel to the communist island is counterproductive and against America's democratic ideals.
Florida International University professor and Cuba scholar Lisandro Pérez echoed the argument, asking what had four decades of a trade embargo accomplished.
Two prominent Cuban Americans -- radio host and University of Miami professor Paul Crespo and Hialeah City Council President Esteban Bovo -- countered that opening Cuba to American tourists and allowing Cuban Americans to visit family on the island more often than once every three years would only strengthen Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl's control.
The mood in the jam-packed Tower Theater was reminiscent of the many decades of demonstrations and discussions about U.S. relations with Cuba: tense, heartfelt and often loud.
Tempers flared here and there, and moderator Michael Putney of WPLG-Channel 10 and several panel members had to remind the crowd to keep calm.
The debate, hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union, foreshadowed what could be a battle in the Democrat-controlled Congress over proposed legislation to ease restrictions.
Crespo said travel isn't the issue. ''It's about the embargo against Castro. We want to keep that money out of Castro's hands,'' he said of tourist dollars, adding that most people will travel there for leisure and not academic or humanitarian reasons.
Bovo agreed, saying that the conditions that drove so many from Cuba are still present. ''Castro has ignored pleas from the left and right to open that society,'' he said.
Pérez argued that a policy which keeps families separated is ''morally reprehensible,'' and that it just doesn't work.
Flake said that while any travel, from anywhere, would inevitably send some funds Castro's way, it would also do good by making it harder for him to isolate his society. ''I think Cuban-American families are perfectly capable of making these decisions for themselves without the intervention of Congress,'' he added.
During a question-and-answer period Miguel Saavedra, founder of the anti-Castro group Vigilia Mambisa, asked Flake if, during any of his four trips to Cuba, he brought up the issue of human rights.
''Every time,'' Flake replied.
``Either verbally or in writing, I've asked them to release prisoners.''
During the question-and-answer period two audience members became so angry and disruptive they had to be escorted out by police.
Luis Zúñiga, a Radio and TV Martí executive and former political prisoner, reminded Flake and Pérez that, even if the travel ban were lifted, ''the regime has the power to decide who will travel to Cuba'' and that many, such as himself, still won't be able to go.
''If they put restrictions, that's their problem,'' Flake said, adding that it should be beneath the United States to restrict Americans' freedoms.
Pérez agreed. ``Let's not put U.S. policy at the level of the Cuban government.''
After the debate, Flake attended a luncheon and campaign fundraiser where the board of directors of the Cuban Committee for Democracy awarded him the Juan Gualberto Gómez Award.
Several recent polls have shown that Cuban Americans are split on whether to end Bush's three-year limit for family travel, a limit that has drawn fire from some in the religious community.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently issued a statement urging Congress to end travel restrictions to the island.
Orlando bishop Thomas Wenski, chairman of the U.S. Bishops' committee on international relations, commended lawmakers who seek to lift the restrictions.
''No one should be prevented from visiting a dying relative or attending a loved one's funeral simply for having traveled to Cuba once in the previous three years,'' Wenski said in that statement, adding that the policy does no honor to the country.
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