By Alex Fryer | Seattle Times staff reporter
Carlos Lazo has floated in shark-infested waters, faced down enemy mortars and traveled across a continent to build a new life.
This week, the Cuban immigrant and Washington National Guardsman will take on another challenge: lobbying Congress to change American foreign policy toward his homeland.
Lazo, 40, will be the star attraction of “Cuba Action Day,” Wednesday in Washington, D.C., an event sponsored by lawmakers and advocacy groups who want to loosen travel restrictions to the island nation.
A medic who served with the Marines during the battle of Fallujah, Lazo said the restrictions, which went into effect last summer, prevent him from visiting his two teenage sons in Havana more than once every three years.
Traveling to Capitol Hill places Lazo at the center of the effort to reform Cuba policy. It’s an uncomfortable role to play, given the decades-long acrimony surrounding the issue.
“Sometimes you are in a place you don’t choose to be. I’m a very private person,” said Lazo, who lives in a Shoreline apartment with his wife and her daughter. He returned from Iraq on March 3 and remains in the Guard.
“I always believe in doing my duty, even if I had a chance of losing my life in Iraq. I also believe in doing my duty as a father.”
Lazo’s odyssey began when he floated on a raft from Cuba to Key West, Fla., in 1992, leaving behind two sons and an ex-wife. He became a U.S. citizen and settled in Miami. Within a week of reading a magazine article about great places to live, Lazo moved to Seattle.
Now a counselor for the state Department of Social and Health Services, Lazo signed up for the National Guard after the February 2001 Nisqually earthquake. “I wanted to do something to help the community,” he said.
In November 2003, he and thousands of other citizen soldiers were called to active duty.
He was deployed to Iraq and assigned to a Marine unit spearheading the Fallujah offensive. He was in a group with two other Latin American medics who formed what they called the “Latin Team.”
“We’d sing together in Spanish. It kept our spirits up and helped us make sure the other one was alive when the bullets were flying past our heads,” he told a military reporter for an article on his unit.
In June 2004, he took a two-week leave to travel to Miami, where he hoped to board a plane to Havana to visit his sons, whom he hadn’t seen since April 2003.
But pandemonium met him at the airport.
New travel rules set to go into effect on June 30 limited Cuban Americans to one visit every three years rather than the previous limit of once a year.
As the deadline approached, the State Department told charter airlines to leave Miami empty and pick up travelers in Havana who needed to get back to the U.S.
That left dozens of people fuming at the airport, including Lazo, who told a news crew from the Hispanic Telemundo TV network that he was a soldier on leave who wouldn’t be able to see his family in Cuba until 2006.
The interview sparked a wave of interest from other media outlets.
MSNBC sent a camera crew to interview Lazo’s two teenage sons in Havana. His case was highlighted in a New York Times editorial, and he wrote an opinion piece published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
On April 13, U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, wrote a letter to the Treasury Department, which grants travel licenses to Cuba, asking for an exception for Lazo.
“It is my hope that his government will honor this young man’s service and sacrifice, and let him see his kids as soon as possible,” wrote McDermott.
The Treasury Department has not responded.
But Lazo caught the attention of others trying to influence U.S. foreign policy.
Sarah Stevens, of the left-leaning Center for International Policy, is an organizer for Cuba Action Day. She said Lazo’s military background makes him the perfect pitchman for changing minds in Washington.
“We are really trying to show that this isn’t about just Cuban Americans. It’s about Americans, and Americans should have the right to travel.”
Last year, the House voted to rescind the travel restrictions. During the debate, U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., a supporter of the amendment, displayed a photograph of Lazo on the House floor.
Facing a veto threat from President Bush, the measure later was dropped.
The flap was only the latest twist in the decades-long debate over U.S.-Cuba relations.
While initially recognizing the government of Fidel Castro in 1959, the U.S. government established an embargo in 1960 as Cuba embraced one-party rule. Diplomatic relations broke off in January 1961.
For decades, policy makers and Cuban Americans have walked a fine line between trying to support relatives in Cuba while at the same time seeking to undermine the Castro regime.
The travel restrictions were intended to prevent Cuban expatriates living in the U.S. from pumping dollars into Cuba’s cash-starved economy, said Treasury Department spokeswoman Molly Millerwise. “This was part of the Bush administration efforts to keep American dollars out of Castro’s hands.”
She would not comment on Lazo’s case specifically but noted that some families have protested the policy. “We stand by the fact that the sanctions are in place to hasten the day when Cuba can be free,” she said.
Even Cuban Americans are not of one mind about the travel restrictions.
Groups such as the Cuban Committee for Democracy, which claims to represent “the more-moderate sector of the Cuban-American community,” want to end the limitations.
On the other side of the debate, the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation opposes any trade or tourism with Cuba and adamantly rejects legislative tinkering with the current policy.
“We understand the value of family contact,” said Camila Ruiz, government director of the foundation. “But my mother hasn’t gone back for 46 years [since Fidel Castro assumed power]. That’s a tremendous sacrifice.”
Lazo said he is prepared to be called a traitor by some factions in the Cuban-American community, but he insisted that his desire to see his children does not help the communist government.
“How does not allowing families see each other help democracy in Cuba?” he asked. “Who could be a better ambassador for democracy than myself if I go over there?”