BY FRANCES ROBLES | Miami Herald
Washington State National Guard Sgt. Carlos Lazo—the Iraq veteran who gained fame when he couldn’t visit his kids in Cuba—last traveled to the island in January 2007. As things stand now, he can’t go back until 2010.
But with Barack Obama’s White House win, Lazo is hopeful that will change—soon.
‘‘If Obama lifts family travel restrictions on the 22nd of January, I’m sure that in February I will be in Cuba visiting my family—and celebrating the new Cuba policies,’’ Lazo said.
Lazo, 43, became a cause celebre for some when the stricter family reunification travel restrictions put in place by President Bush in 2004 kept Lazo from visiting his children in Cuba. The kids eventually settled in Washington, and Lazo became an Obama campaign volunteer. He personifies one of the clearest examples of how U.S. Cuba policy could change under an Obama presidency.
On the campaign trail, Obama vowed not just to lift family travel restrictions that force Cuban-Americans to wait three years to visit immediate relatives on the island, but also said he would lift the cap on how much money Cuban-Americans can send to the island. He also indicated he would be willing to meet with Cuban leader Raúl Castro, drawing fire from critics who accused Obama of being naive and weak on foreign policy issues.
‘‘Obama will take away restrictions and establish low-level contacts with Cuba, extending a peace branch,’’ Lazo said. ``It will be a change from policies that have given the worst results for 50 years.’‘
People on both sides of the Cuba policy issue wonder if those measured moves will become the first steps to bigger changes, including the eventual lifting of the U.S. trade embargo. Obama has said he supports the embargo, and lifting it would require an act of Congress.
‘‘Obama is willing to sit down with Castro without preconditions—that will lead to the lifting sanctions and the embargo,’’ said conservative Cuban-American commentator Ninoska Pérez, who supported McCain, referring to a position Obama has since modified. He now says there would be preparations for any meeting.
‘‘Obama says he supports the embargo, but obviously he doesn’t. He said he supported it to get a certain number of Cuban votes,’’ Pérez added. She predicts Obama will lift all travel restrictions, handing a ‘‘victory to the Cuban regime,’’ and boosting its government-run travel industry.
‘‘Obama thinks he can sit down with a dictator and convince him to be a democrat,’’ she said.
Obama’s Latin America foreign policy advisor, Frank Sanchez, said as president the candidate will move quickly ‘‘within [the] possible and practical bounds of his authority’’ to lift the family travel and remittances restrictions. Anything more than that, Sanchez told The Miami Herald, will have to wait.
‘‘Just like Barack has said, it took us 50 years to get where we are, we’re not going to undo that in five days,’’ Sanchez said. ``We want to see some concrete steps from the Cuban government. If we saw all the political prisoners freed, if we saw something like that, a strong sign, we could begin considering other things.’‘
Vicki Huddleston, a former chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, said Obama’s moves would lead to brisk business in Miami, creating jobs in the travel industry as more flights take off for the island and businesses pop up to handle the flow of care packages.
More importantly, she said, the stream of Cuban Americans and their cash in their relatives’ pockets will boost the independence of people on the island who are now heavily dependent on the Cuban government for their livelihood.
‘‘They will be able to buy TVs, computers, medicine and food. They’ll be able to read The Miami Herald online,’’ she said. ‘‘Allowing families to travel between Miami and Cuba begins to give Cubans a voice, because right now the Cuban government holds all the strings.’’ The University of Miami’s Andy Gomez, of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, said a migration crisis could be triggered when more Cuban Americans begin to see for themselves the reality their relatives are living in, and start trying to help their families get out.
CUBA MAY PREFER MCCAIN
The Cuban government, Huddleston said, might have preferred Sen. John McCain.
‘‘They might fear Obama more. The Cuban government is not dumb,’’ she said. ``More people and more openness is a bigger threat than isolating them.’‘
—————————————————Havana Journal Comments————————————————
Havana Journal Inc. owns CubaPolicy.com and is always looking for development partners.