Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Tampa Meeting Builds Collaboration for Normalization

Cuban Groups Gather In Tampa To Speak With One Voice

The Tampa Tribune

Published: May 30, 2007

In his youth, Havana native Antonio Zamora put it all on the line to take out the Fidel Castro regime and rid the hemisphere of a menacing Soviet satellite. He survived the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion - and subsequent imprisonment in a Cuban jail.

He could be the avatar of anti-Castro, pro-embargo Cuban gravitas. For years he was legal counsel for the hard-line Cuban American National Foundation. And he readily acknowledges that he 'wrote the book on Miami politics.'

But time has elapsed, and times have changed. The influential Miami lawyer is now president of FORNORM, the Foundation For The Normalization of US/Cuba Relations.

He was in town last week, along with representatives of 16 other organizations to speak with one voice on the need to normalize relations with Cuba. To speak, in effect, with a voice other than the strident, pro-embargo, South Florida one that has dominated the subject of Cuban-American relations for the better part of half a century.

They gathered, appropriately enough, in the theater of Ybor City's Circulo Cubano (Cuban Club).

'It's a different world now,' Zamora said. 'Back then was a function of the Cold War era. That's over. Things change. The U.S. now is talking to North Korea, talking to Iran, mending its relations with Libya, and Cuba is 90 miles away and we have this estranged relationship.

'Normalization will open up all kinds of opportunities,' he stressed. 'For too long, we shut out reconciliation. We need a different approach.'
To that end, the Change U.S. Policy Towards Cuba national forum, which featured speakers from California to South Florida, represented a pragmatic leap for those who want to end the counterproductive, Cold War atavism that is U.S. policy toward Cuba.

It's a policy long driven by the highly partisan influence-peddling of savvy, right-wing, South Florida Cuban-Americans. The hardliners haven't merely worn their emotions on their guayabera sleeves. They formed PACs, 501c-3s and delivered money and votes to those they targeted. They took copious notes on the inveterately effective Jewish lobby. All discussions and debates were framed in rhetoric that routinely resonated with 'dictator' and 'freedom' references. Who didn't loathe the former and love the latter? That simplistic, that effective.

The playing field tilted more in the 1990s when the GOP took over Congress - and then Florida. In fact, the Sunshine State's congressional delegation would include Cuban-American, pro-embargo zealots Mario Diaz-Balart, Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in the House and Mel Martinez in the Senate.

This is what the less-organized, pro-travel, anti-embargo normalization crowd has long faced. The frustration of trying to combat the well-financed, take-no-prisoners opposition armed only with better arguments - from economic to geopolitical to moral - and well-intentioned splinter groups. Not nearly enough ammo to fight the good fight - and win.

For example, when Republican congressional ally Jeff Flake of Arizona attended a fundraiser in Miami in his honor, he left with some $6,000. This was no way 'to fund a friend in Congress,' underscored Tampa's Al Fox, president of the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation.
'The legislative process,' Fox said, 'is like a paella. Without rice, no paella. You need sponsors, legislative know-how and money. Without money, there is no legislative process.'

Times Have Changed

But times, as Zamora said, have changed. So have some priorities. Islamist terrorism will do that. So will a tragically botched Iraqi invasion and occupation.

At a time when the United States needs serious allies and its prestige and clout are on the global skids, a seemingly arrogant, mean-spirited, pro-embargo policy against Cuba belies our protestations that we really are the good guys.

It's also a time when public opinion has turned.

According to Associated Press, Gallup and CNN polls, Americans now favor normalized relations between the United States and Cuba. Some show the margin at nearly 2-to-1. And a recent survey by Florida International University reports that 55.2 percent of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County are in favor of unfettered travel from the United States to Cuba; 51.3 percent support the establishment of full U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations; and 76.4 percent agree that the embargo has not worked well or not at all.

So much for the monolithic mind-set of Cuban-Americans, especially across generations. Even in South Florida.

Moreover, the Miami Herald, long an editorial mouthpiece for militant anti-Castroites, has now recognized the 'counterproductive restrictions on travel to the island.'

In Congress, there are two bills trolling for more co-sponsors that would end restrictions on travel to Cuba by all Americans. House Resolution 654, which has 108 co-sponsors to date, was submitted by Reps. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. Rangel also chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. On the Senate side, there is S 721, introduced by Sen. Mike Enzi, R-W.Y., and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., which has 20 bipartisan co-sponsors.

None of the co-sponsors, unconscionably, is from Florida.

Rep. Jose Serano, D-N.Y., has proposed the embargo-lifting Cuban Reconciliation Act, and Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., has introduced a bill to ease payment regimens for agricultural sales to Cuba. Last year, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, submitted a bill that would exempt U.S. oil exploration from the embargo.

The rumblings of change are manifest. The tipping point, however, isn't yet imminent.

That can't happen as long as South Florida's hard-liners have a de facto veto in U.S.-Cuba relations. And Congress, which has the real power to undo a failed Cuban policy, needs to be pressured the old-fashioned way: money and an organized voting bloc.

Pragmatic Approach

Amid exhortations for more money, better cooperation and increased media sophistication, Zamora underscored a bottom-line approach that harkened back to his Cold War roots. Because 'winning the message' wasn't enough, he urged the implementation of 'guerilla tactics.'
Zamora, however, isn't so literal these days.

He urged an alliance with other political constituencies - notably black Americans and non-Cuban Hispanics. He also advised going after non-Cuban, Florida politicians who are hardly true believers when it comes to a pro-embargo, anti-travel Cuban policy, but have had to go along to get along with a Republican majority in Congress - a majority that is no longer there.

And, yes, Zamora was talking about Democratic U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Kendrick Meek and Allen Boyd. The latter two remain incongruous members of the hard-line Cuban Democracy Caucus.

Before the forum was finished, others had strongly suggested pressuring presidential candidates such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton into co-sponsoring the Senate bill to lift travel restrictions to Cuba.

Fox even urged calling U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor's office every single day.
It obviously remains to be seen how much, if any, difference the Tampa forum will make. This much, however, seemed apparent. Such a gathering, with its emphasis on building cooperation and leveling the playing field, was long overdue. As was a key role for Tampa, the city with intimate, historic roots to Cuba, direct links to national icon Jose Marti and a reputation for moderate Cuban politics. Tampa is now a major player in whatever unfolds.

The timing would seem propitious as events fast forward. To wit: the eroding role of Fidelismo, a Bush presidency in retreat and a rapidly metastasizing geopolitical mess. Plus, the evolving generational attitudes among Cuban-Americans, 40 percent of whom don't live in South Florida. Then add the inevitability of more aggressive lobbying by U.S. business interests, residents appalled by un-American travel restrictions and Cuban-Americans wanting to see loved ones on the island more often than once every three years.

'The significance of the forum,' summarized Fox, the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy president, 'is that we have an umbrella big enough to cover a whole range of opinions. We all don't agree on everything. But we agree on the goal of removing the economic embargo. We are working together. That is significant.'

Joe O'Neill is a writer who lives in Hyde Park. He can be contacted at www.OpinionsToGoOnLine .com.