Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The continuing saga of Carlos Lazo

This story is few days old but Hurricane Wilma screwed a lot of things up so here it is. My comments follow the article.
Oct. 22, 2005

MIAMI

Family reunion is political affair

Cuban war vet faces a new battle - the right to see his family

BY OSCAR CORRAL

ocorral@herald.com

Standing behind the glass at the customs exit Friday, decorated Iraq veteran Carlos Lazo spotted his sons as they exited into the waiting area at Miami International Airport. He ran and embraced them both in his arms, crying on their shoulders.

His sons, who left behind their mother in Havana, practically picked their father up off the floor.

''This is the biggest emotion of my entire life,'' 17-year-old Carlos Rafael said. ``I just want to be with my dad and hug him and spend time with him.''

The tearful embrace was more than a family reunion -- it was also a major public relations blow to the U.S. travel policy to Cuba.

The U.S. government ultimately refused to let Lazo travel to Cuba to see his two teenage sons, even though he fought for America in Iraq as a National Guard sergeant and survived the bloody battle of Fallujah.

Lazo, a Cuban immigrant, entered the Armed Forces after arriving in the United States in 1992, but his family remained in Cuba.

The boys, Carlos Rafael, 17, and Carlos Manuel, 19, were allowed to come to the United States on a three-month visa under an agreement with the State Department and the Cuban government.

''I'm so happy to have my kids here,'' said an emotional Lazo, one arm around each son. ``All I want is for other Cubans who are here to be able to do the same. These cruel laws that separate families should be repealed.''

The reunion at Terminal E was the climactic end to an epic political fight Lazo has waged for a year and a half to get around strict travel restrictions imposed by the Bush administration in 2004. Those restrictions mostly limit Cubans and Cuban Americans to one trip to the island every three years.

The rules were meant to punish the government of Fidel Castro and hasten a democratic transition on the island. But Lazo argued that since he risked his life for his adopted country, he should have been allowed to visit his sons.

The Lazo family's plight has drawn national media attention and prompted lawmakers from both parties to complain about the strict limits imposed on travel to Cuba by the Bush administration.

Lazo's sons had never been to the United States. The last time they saw their father was more than two years ago when he visited them in Cuba.

''I was worried about my dad because I heard about all the bombs and fighting in Iraq,'' Carlos Manuel said. ``What I want the most is to be here with him.''

Lazo, who lives in Washington state, has become the poster child for groups and politicians opposed to the ban on U.S. travel to Cuba. He showed up at the airport with Sarah Stephens, a representative with the Center for International Policy which advocates against the travel restrictions.

And just this week, Lazo's case was anecdoted by Human Rights Watch, which scolded both Cuba and the United States in a report for ripping families apart under travel policies that violate civil rights.

''By keeping him from his sons, the travel restrictions have produced an acute dilemma for Sergeant Lazo,'' the HRW report said. ``He is very proud of his service in the U.S. army and worried that, if he were to violate the travel ban, he might jeopardize his military career.''

Human Rights Watch also slammed the Cuban government for refusing to allow many Cubans to leave the island, even though they have been given visas by the United States.

In his quest to visit Cuba, Lazo met with several lawmakers in Washington. He told The Herald that he had a private meeting with Sen. Mel Martinez and had a phone conversation with Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

He said it was Martinez, along with a couple of other elected officials, who suggested that his sons come here instead.

''Mel Martinez was very human and listened to me, and for that I'm grateful,'' Lazo said.

Lazo also met with aides of Reps. Lincoln and Mario Díaz-Balart but said that within five minutes, he knew they would not help him get to Cuba because they wanted to see all travel there banned.

Stephens acknowledged that the Cuban government probably viewed the reunion in Miami as a public relations victory in their quest to have travel restrictions eased.

''In some respects, this is a propaganda victory for the Cuban government,'' she said in a written statement. ``Nevertheless, it is an important victory for the principle of free travel.''

Lazo served for seven months as a combat medic in Iraq and decided that he wanted to see his sons one more time before returning to the front lines, thinking he may never see them again if he was killed.

But he was turned away from a flight to Cuba at MIA in 2004 and returned to Iraq without seeing his sons. There, he provided backup for the U.S. Marines in Fallujah. The new restrictions were put into place by the Bush administration in the summer of 2004, just weeks before the presidential elections. Critics said Bush was pandering to conservative Cuban exile voters, who welcomed the new restrictions.

The boys are scheduled to fly back to Washington state with their father early next week.

---------------

While I have the utmost respect for the service Sgt. Lazo has given to his adoptive country, I have to question his motives somewhat. Lazo left Cuba and his sons many years ago. I understand his desire to see his children, and I can't imagine what it would be like to miss watching your children grow. But the fact is that Mr. Lazo has some very powerful allies that wanted to make more of a political point than to reunite a family.

Of course Lazo was offered visas for his sons to visit him here in the States, yet he refused to accept stating that it was a family decision. This was when he was on his whirlwind media/congressional tour. I reported this here, here, here and here. The fact is that Lazo will be eligible to visit Cuba again in April of 2006. That's 3 months after the boys are scheduled to return to Cuba.

One trip every 3 years is a reasonable stipulation. I don't want any families separated, and that's why I support any measure that weakens fidel castro's financial position. The sooner the regime crumbles under its weight, the sooner we will all be reunited with our loved ones on the island.

Another thing that bothers me about Lazo is that unlike my wife's grandparents and so many thousands of other parents who sent their kids (alone) to live in freedom, Lazo sought freedom for himself leaving his kids behind. I have a hard time feeling sympathy for him. We all sleep in the beds we make.

I'll also be curious to see if those kids ever do return to Cuba. 3 months is long time to be here realizing that the world is much different than what you've been told. I wonder if Carlos Lazo will put those kids on that plane against their will, or if they know they can independently petition for political asylum? After all, if Cuba wasn't good enough for Lazo himself, why would it be good enough for his teenage sons. I'll be following this story.

4 comments:

ziva said...

Conductor, here's another reason to question Lazo's motives. He's a poster victim for The Center for International Policy's Freedom to Travel Campaign's List of Victims.

http://www.cubacentral.com/travelvictimsdetail.cfm?ID=33

Robert said...

Conductor,

I think the travel regulations are a bit harsh, as I have stated in my blog recently.

However, I agree with you about Lazo's motives. I too remember him stating that he denied the requests to grant his sons' visas for personal reasons. Why is it OK now? Because the "right" people pushed for it? If I recall correctly, Lincoln Diaz-Balart was the one who originally suggested the visas. Mel Martinez did as well.

I stated this before, and I'll state it again now - Lazo doesn't care for us Miami Mafia types too much.

I wish Lazo and his sons the best, but his motives are questionable.

gansibele said...

Why you question his motives? You think he wants anything other than see his kids? He got himself into this situation to make a political point? Was he an activist before? If the NEW travel restrictions were not in place, he wouldn't have become an advocate for removing them and he wouldn't need "very powerful allies" (who, btw?). He just used the system. What, you'd prefer he had gone quietly through Cancún?

When he left his kids the current measures were not in place. Cubans could go every year and more often if needed, legally. For all you know, his decision may have been different if he knew he wouldn't be able to see them. You also know very well that's not easy to leave with your whole family (almost impossible in fact) and that "sending your kids alone to live in freedom" (I'm assuming you mean Peter Pan) was a one time only policy decades ago. You imply he was selfish by "seeking freedom for himself" - he just did what the majority of Cubans today are forced to do in order to improve the life of their families.

At the end of the day, the Cuban government let the kids come but the US didn't let Lazo go - and once again they were handed a PR victory by the myopia of a few.

And you know, nothing personal, but it's hard to hear that every 3 years is "reasonable" when your family is in Cuba. The problem with these measures is that the ones who placed and support them no longer have anyone left there. If it where up to Diaz Balart, Ros Lehtinen et al, ALL TRAVEL AND MONEY REMITTANCES WOULD BE BANNED. That's fine, I'm well aware that a lot of their constituents support that - but that's exactly why Lazo shouldn't accept any help from them and he didn't. The time will come when that position will get them booted off Congress.

Juan Paxety said...

If I were the kids, I'd be on the lookout for a red pickup truck being driven by a tall, ugly woman.