When I was Chief of Staff to the Secretary of State in 2004, I was exposed to some criticism within the Bush administration when I was quoted in GQ Magazine as saying that U.S. Cuba policy was the stupidest policy on earth. I deserved the criticism because my immediate boss, Colin Powell, had approved that policy. Not only that, he was co-chairman of the Committee set up to monitor implementation of it. Now I realize that I deserve far stronger criticism for not resigning my position in disgust over such policy. Let me tell you one of the most powerful reasons I feel that way.
There is a film by Lisandro Perez-Rey called "Those I Left Behind" (see www.Gatomedia.com). The film documents the lives of several Cuban-American families against the backdrop of the Bush administration's tightened rules on travel to Cuba. It is devastating in its condemnation of those rules. In the film, you see and hear from people whose lives are in turmoil because of these inane rules. You donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t need to understand how damaging the rules are to helping democracy come to Cuba. You donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t need to understand how dangerous the rules are with respect to U.S. national security. You donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t need to appreciate that Cuba is the only country in the world which U.S. citizens are prohibited to visitÃ¢â‚¬â€a violation of their constitutional rights. And you don't need to comprehend how much business America is losing because of the policies behind those rulesÃ¢â‚¬â€policies that have failed abjectly now for some 46 years. All you need to do is witness the devastation in the lives of these families to know that the rules must be changed and as swiftly as possible.
Central to the film is the testimony of an American citizenÃ¢â‚¬â€an American soldier who has served in IraqÃ¢â‚¬â€who now finds it difficult if not impossible to visit his sons in Cuba. Sergeant Carlos Lazo, now somewhat famous for his advocacy for change, is shown talking to his two sons, Carlos Manuel and Carlos Raphael, who are in Cuba, via one of his many television appearances as he works for change. A resident of Seattle and a member of the Washington National Guard, Sergeant Lazo served as a combat medic in Iraq. Watching the scenes in the film of his sons in Cuba and the Sergeant in the United States, is wrenching. Particularly when Lazo talks of wanting to visit his sons prior to his departure for a year in IraqÃ¢â‚¬â€a year where he easily could have been wounded or killedÃ¢â‚¬â€and then not being able to do so, you get the message he is trying to convey with a directness that is heartbreaking.
But Sergeant Lazo's story is not the only one the film documents. You see Maximo Gonzalez as he watches videos of his family in CubaÃ¢â‚¬â€videos made during better times when visits were less restricted. You also note that Maximo dies of lung cancer and is never able to see his family again.
You hear from Arlene Garcia, a resident of Arlington, Virginia. You see touching scenes of Arlene with her niece, whom she had to smuggle out of Cuba through Mexico to be with. You listen to Arlene, with tears about to flow, describe her sister in Cuba and how she longs to see her.
You hear from Marlene Arzola and see scenes of her and her son, Liam, visiting their family in GuantÃƒÂ¡namo Bay, CubaÃ¢â‚¬â€again in better times. Later, you see scenes of Liam on South Beach in Miami, grown several years older and wondering, along with his mother, if he will ever see his grandmother in Cuba again.
You find yourself on the verge of tears as you watch these heart-rending scenes of these tortured families. Then, if youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re like me, your tears turn to anger when you contemplate that it is not Castro doing this, it is us.
Sergeant Lazo casts this realization in its starkest terms when he relates how, in Iraq, he told his Platoon Sergeant about not being able to visit his two sons in Cuba. The Platoon Sergeant said of course he should not expect to visit his sons in a communist country. Communists, he said, are bad and donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t allow visits. Lazo had to disabuse him of who was "not allowing the visits". His sergeant was stunned.
Lazo goes on to relate more of the reality behind these policies when he says how sad it is that U.S. Cuba policy has been "manipulated and kidnapped by a small minority in Florida." Lazo says: "The policies aren't made in Washington, DC. They're made in Miami." And they're made by the older but wealthier Cuban-Americans who by and large have no family members in Cuba.
Lazo goes on to say that "This administration [the Bush administration] preaches about family valuesÃ¢â‚¬Â¦yet I can't visit my family in Cuba."
Of course, by going to Canada or Mexico, Sergeant Lazo could do just thatÃ¢â‚¬â€illegally. But as a good American, he refuses to do that.
What a situation! A man who has served his country in a deadly war zone, who honors its laws, who loves his sons in Cuba, cannot visit them when he wants to do so. And the culprit is not the communist country where they live, not Fidel Castro, but his own country.
Watch the film if you can. It's a devastating condemnation of U.S. policyÃ¢â‚¬â€and not from the filmmaker but from the mouths of average Cuban-Americans who love their families.
-- Lawrence Wilkerson
(For more information on these issues, visit the website for the Cuban-American Commission for Family Rights at www.cubanfamilyrights.org. The website is a bit dated but there is valuable information there. "Dated" because, at my last visit, February 2007 was the most recent date and I could find no information about the recent stunning defeat in the House of Representative Rangel, et al, with regard to easing the Cuba travel restrictions. )