Kathy Castor, Tampa’s representative in Congress, has got courage. Of the twenty-seven members of Florida’s delegation, only five have more Cuban Americans in their districts than she has living in hers. None but Castor has made the effort, as she did a few weeks ago, to visit Cuba.
When Ms. Castor returned home, she wrote President Obama and urged him to modernize Cuba policy. She asked the president to support Cuba’s economic reforms, end the travel ban, lift trade restrictions, engage Cuba in a dialogue on human rights, and, critically, to remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terror List.
Such clear, forward thinking was too much for Ralph Fernandez, a Tampa attorney, who “pinned the label ‘terrorist’ on Castor,” as the Tampa Bay Business Journal reported, and said “she joins all terrorists of the western hemisphere in solidarity with the (Castro) regime and tyranny that has brought pain and agony to my people.”
Such rhetoric was sad, but not surprising, and the tactic was all too familiar. The noisiest critics of the system in Cuba like to stanch free debate in America to stop courage like Castor’s from becoming contagious.
In this case, the name-calling backfired, and emboldened constituents rose to her defense. Patrick Manteiga, publisher of Tampa’s La Gaceta newspaper, donated space for a full-page ad in last week’s issue that saluted Castor “on her historic trip to Cuba” and he got more than 300 area residents to sign on…in Florida.
This is further proof that the politics around Cuba issues is changing, that the Cuba Lobby, which has petrified politicians and paralyzed policy for decades, can be challenged not just by rare instances of courage but by compelling examples of common sense.
It may take time for this truth to move from Tampa Bay to the halls of Congress, but we hope it’s heard in Foggy Bottom and that the U.S. State Department gets the message fast.
By April 30th, Secretary of State John Kerry must decide whether Cuba should be removed from the list of countries designated as State Sponsors of Terror.
Kerry has previously spoken sensibly on terrorism. Presiding over the confirmation of Hillary Rodham Clinton to serve as Secretary of State, John Kerry, then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said:
In the last seven years, we have spent the treasure of this nation – young American soldiers, first and foremost, and billions of dollars – to fight terrorism, and yet grave questions remain as to whether or not we have chosen our battles correctly, pursued the right strategy, defined the right goals.
Now that Kerry is running State, it’s time for him to pursue the right strategy and act decisively by removing Cuba from the terror list. The merits are clear.
“None of the reasons that landed Cuba on the list in 1982 still exist,” as the Los Angeles Times explained recently. “A 2012 report by the State Department found that Havana no longer provides weapons or paramilitary training to Marxist rebels in Latin America or Africa. In fact, Cuba is currently hosting peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and President Juan Manuel Santos’ government.”
This is just the point Rep. Castor made to President Obama. “One of the reasons used to justify Cuba’s presence on the State Sponsors of Terror List was its support of the FARC. This rationale is no longer valid, and it provides our nation with an opportunity to remove Cuba from the list and focus on global actors who need our attention.”
After returning from Cuba, on a trip led by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, Rep. Castor never stopped working. She used contacts she made at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to connect grandparents in her district to Cuban and U.S. officials, trying to facilitate the return of Chase and Cole Hakken, children abducted by their parents in Tampa and taken by boat to Cuba.
The same Tampa attorney who called out Castor assured local media that the parents, who were fugitives in Cuba, were safe, “there’s no extradition…There’s nothing that can be done.”
Soon after, the Cubans arrested the parents and returned them to Florida where they face a variety of serious charges, and the boys, ages 4 and 2, were reunited with their grandparents proving, as Rep. Castor said, “the value of engagement” and the importance of reforming the policy.