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Posted October 22, 2005 by mattlawrence in Cuba Human Rights

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

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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 These cruel laws that separate families should be repealed.’‘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 Daz-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.

  1. Follow up post #1 added on October 24, 2005 by yumaguy with 176 total posts

    Looks like a deal was cut so that the kids could visit but without invoking the CAA. . .

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