To Starve a Tyrant

by Sean Jackowitz:

Born to Cuban parents who escaped to Venezuela from Fidel Castro’s repressive communist regime, Yuleidys Sardinas arrived in Miami when she was only four years old without any knowledge of English. Today, sixteen years later, she is a prime example of what every immigrant would want for his or her children, having done well in high school and now studying education at a university in Florida. Mention Fidel Castro, however, and this otherwise composed schoolteacher-to-be can quickly turn impassioned.

“Castro has killed lots of people,” she said as the tone of her voice darkened. “Those who oppose him are hunted down.” The Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF), the largest of the U.S.-based activist groups dedicated to overthrowing Castro’s regime, helped Sardinas’ family immigrate to the United States. Because of its efforts, Sardinas was able to grow up in Miami and become a successful student—as well as a fervently anti- Castro second-generation Cuban-American.

Facing a changing political climate both inside and outside Miami’s Cuban-American community, CANF could not have hoped for more from a member of the next generation of Cuban- Americans. The Miami Cuban-American community has long been united behind CANF in calling for U.S. disengagement from the Cuban government and the strict enforcement of the U.S. embargo. But today, many in the community fear that both younger Cuban-Americans and recently arrived Cuban immigrants are forgetting the orthodoxy of anti-Castro politics, forming different opinions about what shape the embargo should take. Sardinas admitted that she and her friends often argue over whether they should be allowed to visit the island or even send relatives money. Many Cuban-Americans also fear—and even resent—the growing influence of those outside their community who have urged the U.S. government to abandon the embargo altogether.

CANF and similar groups, like most Cuban-Americans in Miami, believe that the embargo will eventually bring democracy to Cuba. With Castro ill and changes in both the Cuban regime and U.S. policy likely within the next few months, Cuban-American activists face a straightforward though uphill battle: they must unite their community in order to convince Washington’s elected officials that they truly represent Miami’s 1.7 million Cuban- Americans. Congressmen and even presidents have listened to them in the past—but is their activism strong enough today to be heard once again?

El Bloqueo

CANF was founded in 1981 to advocate stern policy measures against the Castro regime. The group quickly rose to the forefront of Cuban-American politics in both Miami and Washington. In 1983, it successfully lobbied Congress to create Radio and TV Marti, both of which broadcast pro-democracy political programming to Cuba. In the 1990s, CANF again lobbied Congress, this time to have the decades-long embargo—put in force under executive power soon after the 1959 Cuban Revolution—codified into law.

The embargo—el bloqueo, as it is known in Cuba—is one of the pillars of CANF advocacy. As Camilla Gallardo, head of Government Relations at CANF, told the Globalist, “Since the inception of our organization, we’ve tried to push a U.S. policy towards Cuba we think would help foster democratic change.” According to Gallardo, a key part of that policy has been finding ways to deprive Castro’s government of its needed resources. “We support the embargo because we believe that allowing a regular trade and diplomatic relationship with Cuba would help legitimize a regime that came to power through illegitimate ways.”

Within the Cuban-American community in Miami, however, a growing number of activists are stepping away from the traditional hard-line approach, which has urged maintaining as stringent an embargo as possible. These more moderate voices have called for a loosening of the strict travel restrictions President George W. Bush imposed in 2003, which made travel to Cuba more difficult for Americans, including those who still have family there. Among Cuban-Americans, the restrictions are one of the main sources of contention.

Gallardo conceded that some of these newer restrictions are unnecessarily harsh, especially for recently arrived immigrants, whose ties to Cuba are the strongest. However, she emphasized that, while the Cuban-American community may debate the details of the embargo, few would disagree in principle about the embargo’s necessity. “We’re all on the same page as far as what our objective is, and that is for Cuba to be free. In the end, nobody wants to contribute their money to the Cuban regime, nobody wants to engage in any practice that can prolong the suffering of the Cuban people.”

Trouble in Paradise

On July 31, 2006, an end to the suffering suddenly appeared much nearer. The Cuban government announced that Fidel Castro had fallen ill and that his brother, Raul, was to assume power, leading many to believe the communist regime was nearing its final days.

Raul’s uneventful takeover has since dashed hopes for an easy end to Cuban communism. Still, the announcement allowed Cuban-American activists to bring their cause to the fore, though Miami’s Cuban-American community largely blundered in the national spotlight. Throughout the final months of 2006, controversy after controversy tainted the community’s image, giving rise to critics who saw in the community vituperative extremism, excessive intransigence, and even corruption.

In September, evidence surfaced that several South Florida journalists had covertly received thousands of dollars from the federal government to report for Radio and TV Marti. Soon thereafter, it was discovered that not only were the Marti networks rife with cronyism and graft, but they were also breaking U.S. anti-propaganda laws. In December, a video was made public in which a ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), called for the assassination of Fidel Castro, leading many to question whether the well-known Cuban-American was level-headed enough for a high position in Congress.

These scandals were accompanied by calls for a liberalization of U.S. policy towards Cuba. Representative Jeff Flake (RAZ), who leads a bipartisan congressional study group formed to investigate ending the embargo, has been one of the most vocal advocates for such a change. Following a trip by the study group to the island in December, Flake issued a statement to the press in which he advocated opening up dialogue with Cuba. “No one should be under the illusion that a negotiation with Cuba would be easy or that results would be guaranteed. But if we refuse to engage in normal diplomacy, we are guaranteed to produce no results at all.”

Planning a Retreat?

Faced with a changing political climate, Miami Cuban- American activist groups have had to retreat to common ground to ensure their influence stays strong. On December 5, a coalition of Cuban-American activist groups, which called itself Consenso Cubano and included CANF among its member organizations, released a joint statement calling for a loosening of both travel restrictions and rules against remittances. One of the signatories to the Consenso Cubano was the president of the activist organization Brothers to the Rescue, Jose Basulto. Basulto, who has almost legendary status among Cuban-Americans, fought at the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and has dedicated himself to opposing the Castro regime ever since. He founded Brothers to the Rescue in 1991 to aid Cuban immigrants attempting to cross the Florida Straits. In 1996, Cuban fighters shot down two of his organization’s aircraft; Basulto, flying a third aircraft that day, barely escaped.

“There’s been a deliberate interest on part of the Cuban government and some people within the American community to depict the Cuban-American community as intransigent, right-wing, hard-line, and all sorts of things,” Basulto told the Globalist. He added that both Democrats and Republicans have come to terms with Castro, and oftentimes it falls upon people like him to take appropriate action.

For instance, Basulto, convinced that Marti was an inefficient operation, set up his own station. “Using very primitive electronic means—on the level of Radio Shack, in fact—we built a TV transmitter and transmitted 15 minutes of television into Havana.” The U.S. government, seemingly impressed, brought in its own airborne electronic equipment. “If we had the budget of running that airplane, we’d have perfect coverage of Cuba,” Basulto joked. Basulto’s one-man activism might annoy one Castro or another, but it will probably fall short of bringing down the government. For Basulto, only the embargo can achieve this goal. “The embargo is a tool that can bring democracy to Cuba; if we were to give it up, we would get nothing in return.”

While Miami’s Cuban-Americans have long bickered about what exactly the embargo should mean, they now face demands to abandon the embargo altogether and have united to advocate a common policy to end communism in Cuba. Not as conservative as Cuban-American demands in years past, the embargo they envision today—strict, with some allowances—would still starve the regime of much of its needed resources.

For Miami’s Cuban-American activist groups, the job at hand is to convince the nation not to take any steps that they believe would prolong communism’s hold on Cuba. They have been persuasive enough in the past, as the Cuban-American vote can certainly put Florida in one party’s camp or another. Perhaps for that very reason, Cuban-American activists have had to focus on unity at the expense of ideology. For, politicians listen to those who can deliver millions of votes, not just thousands. Cuban-American activists would ideally like to deliver the votes of Sardinas, her more liberal-minded friends, and her older relatives, not just a fraction of the Cuban-American community.

Rarely do activists, free as they are from the restraints of elected office, do such politicking. But to starve a tyrant, one must place consensus-building before all else.