As you may know, the local chapter of the ACLU hosted a debate at the Tower Theater this morning. The topic was the travel restrictions to Cuba. It promised to be a heated atmosphere, and it was.
Arguing on behalf of lifting the travel restrictions were Congressman Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona who has been the co-sponsor of many failed attempts to weaken the embargo, and Lisandro Perez, a professor from FIU and a long-time diologuero.
On the other side, in favor of leaving the travel restrictions in place, was Paul Crespo who is a commentator on WQBA and also teaches at the University of Miami and Steve Bovo who is councilman from Hialeah. Bovo was a last minute replacement for David Rivera, a state representative who according to Michael Putney, the moderator, couldn't get away from Tallahassee. It was curious that Putney excused Rivera's absence and then chastized the three Republican congresspersons from Miami that champion the sanctions against Cuba for not being there. Pehaps they too were doing the people's business.
Impressions of the speakers:
Jeff Flake. He strikes me as a namby pamby, soft kind of guy. He wasn't particularly articulate or inspiring. He had a shit-eating grin on his face the whole time.
Lisandro Perez. Obviously a well-spoken guy with a command of the language and the issue. He knows how to debate and he used a debating trick to try to change the topic of the debate. He challenged the other side, because he said they had the burden of proof, to articulate how the plan behind keeping the restrictions works, if there is a plan. In this way he conveniently shifted that burden away from his own position. In other words he wouldn't have explain exactly how removing the restrictions would bring change.
Paul Crespo. He also has command of the issues. I don't know how much his style lends itself to this type of discussion. He made a lot of the right points but, for some reason he came across a little uninspired.
Steve Bovo. I thought he was going to be a bust, after all how often does a councilman from Hialeah have to debate this issue. I was very, and pleasantly surprised, to hear his discourse. He spoke passionately but not heatedly. He had command of the issues and was able to personalize it.
Each speaker had a chance to give an opening statement. The one thing that caught my attention was when Lisandro Perez said that the problem is that U.S. policy toward Cuba is being hijacked by a small group of Cuban-Americans because someone once "whispered in the politicians' ear" that the way to get elected is to back measures against Cuba no matter how inhumane or barbaric. This is not a new allegation. I wanted to pose a related question to Perez but they ended the debate before my turn came. The question I would have asked him is this:
Mr. Perez, you claim that the policy should be changed because it hasn't worked even though it's been in place for many years. Yet you also claim that you have been fighting to remove the sanctions against Cuba for 30 years and obviously that hasn't worked either. So if futility is a reason for change, then perhaps you should give up your fight rather than ask us to give up ours.In his opening statement, Steve Bovo said that if we can all agree that the castro regime is a dictorship and that it abuses human rights and that it's a haven for fugitives from American justice then how can we consider rewarding such a regime. This was important because later Michael Putney said rhetorically that Flake and Perez would stipulate the dictatorial and repressive nature of the regime and then thought better of it and actually posed the question. Flake, to his credit, quickly denounced the regime as a dictatorship but when faced with the question Lisandro Perez dissembled and began using verbal acrobatics to get out giving a straight answer. This is when the pro-restrictions side of the crowd, me included, began to yell "Say it!" While he continued to talk in circles the crowd got more hositile, again me included, yelling "He won't say it!"
In your opening statement you said that US policy is controlled by a vocal group of exiles. It sounds to me like you don't have such a high opinion of the electorate, and perhaps with good reason. We're not all college professors. But I do know that my parents tought me this: you are who you hang around with. And on this issue your opinion coincides with the official position of the Castro regime. How do you reconcile that?
It's important to stop here and meditate on the importance of this. While it wasn't the classiest thing for us to do, we felt that it was important to get it "on the record" that Lisandro Perez will not denounce the Castro regime. Not even as a general stipulation to discussion about the best way to bring about change in Cuba. Later during the audience Q&A one man directed the question to Perez and asked him specifically to answer yes or no as to whether or not the Castro regime is a totalitarian dictatorship that violates human rights and Perez refused to answer. You see there are two types of people on the other side of this debate. People that are honestly anti-fidel that think that the policy is wrong for a variety of reasons and people who aren't anti-fidel and are lobbying for the removal of the embargo because they think it will help castro. By refusing to denounce the regime, Lisandro Perez puts himself (in my opinion and opinion is a defense against libel and slander) squarely in the camp of the fidelistas.
In his opening statement Perez put forth the opinion that the United States has an irrational policy toward Cuba considering its size and relative threat to the US. It's funny how these people always try to minimize the threat Cuba poses to the US. That's exactly what one of the main responsibilities of convicted Cuban Spy Ana Belen Montes was. Except Ana Belen Montes was doing at while she was working for the Defense Intelligence Agency at the Pentagon.
What Lisandro Perez conveniently fails to point out, but the other side didn't let slide, is that Cuba has been instrumental in fomenting anti-American revolutions, narcotics smuggling, etc. Cuba's weakened position, and the reduced threat that corresponds with that weakened position, is precisely a result of the embargo. To give this regime more money, through tourist dollars, is to strengthen it and therefore strengthen the threat.
Paul Crespo put forth his opinion that the closest the castro regime came to falling was during the early 90s as a result of economic pressure after the fall of the USSR. He believes that it was tourist dollars that helped breathe life back into the dictatorship and that giving Cuba more tourist dollars will only breathe more life into it not less.
Lisandro Perez disagreed and said that he believed the regime's weakest point was in 1979 before the Mariel boatlift precisely because 100,000 Cuban-Americans visited Cuba that year. At that point, Michael Putney chimed in and said that his first trip to cover Cuba was in 1981 and that he talked to many Cubans who spoke proudly of their family in Miami, what they had, and what they accomplished. Paul Crespo conceded that, while this was true, the sentiment that came along with that was "let's go to Miami" not "let's overthrow the government". Putney then had to concede that this was true. Crespo added that the only government that Mariel helped change was the Carter presidency as it was another sign of his weakness that resulted his electoral defeat.
At the end of the debate I thanked Steve Bovo for doing a great job and he said "es un deber" "it's my responsibilty." I also approached Jeff Flake and told him that I joined the Republican party on my 18th birthday because the Republicans were the party that was tough on communism and that I admired the stance Ronald Reagan took against the communists and that he (Flake) doesn't live up to that legacy. I didn't let him answer, I just turned around and walked away.
I'll add more if remember anything else.