Both sides of embargo issue meet at Biltmore
BY NANCY SAN MARTIN
It was billed as a ''historic'' event to propel a change of U.S. policy
toward Cuba. About 300 people
attended a daylong conference Thursday calling for a lifting of the 43-year-old embargo and easing of
trade and travel restrictions, even as influential proponents of current U.S. policy and protesters
gathered to urge that the laws remain in place.
''The current policy has lost the support of the American people,'' Rep.
William Delahunt, D-Mass.,
said at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, adding that polls indicate most Americans want the United
States to lift the embargo and restrictions on travel and sale of food and medicine.
''The world does view this policy as hypocritical and inconsistent with
the values we preach,'' said Delahunt,
who was joined at the conference by Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. ``We're at a new era. If the administration hears
from this community that times are changing, I guarantee you the policy will change.''
Although some groups have advocated a change in policy for years, it was
believed to be the first time
that a significant conference opposing the U.S. embargo of Cuba was held in Miami-Dade County.
''There is no longer a monolith of opinion in South Florida,'' Sally Grooms
Cowal, president of the
Washington-based Cuba Policy Foundation, said to resounding applause.
''This is the silent majority,'' she said. ``Today, it's not silent.''
Meanwhile, on the other side of the hotel, U.S. Reps. Lincoln Díaz-Balart
and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, both
Miami Republicans, held a press conference along with several former Cuban political prisoners
denouncing the event.
They said pressure against the Cuban government will continue until President
Fidel Castro meets
three objectives: freedom for all political prisoners, free speech and free elections.
''The question is not whether or not to have sanctions,'' Ros-Lehtinen
said. 'The question is, `When is
[Castro's] regime willing to lift its sanctions?' ''
Outside, a small group of opponents waving Cuban, U.S. and other flags
carried signs that read
''Freedom for Cuba, Helping Castro is Crime'' and ``No deals for a Terrorist Cuba. U.S -- Get Tough.''
Some shouted insults and called the conference participants ''traitors.''
The gathering of about two
dozen demonstrators lasted less than three hours.
EYE ON WASHINGTON
Antonio Zamora, one of the conference organizers, said they plan to deliver
a written copy of the
proceedings to Washington and increase lobbying efforts.
''This conference is not intended to antagonize anybody,'' said Zamora,
of the U.S./Cuba Legal Forum in
Miami. ``It's intended to show that there are different points of view in Miami and we believe that
Miami has changed. It's not the closed community it was 10 years ago. We want to be part of the
reassessment of U.S.-Cuba policy.''
The renewed debate comes as Otto Reich, President Bush's top Latin American
diplomat, has indicated
that the administration's policy is under review and that restrictions on Cuba will likely be tightened
Speakers at Thursday's event also promoted the idea of free trade, specifically
the sale of food and
Studies indicate that Cuba could account for between $684 million and $1.2
billion annually in
merchandise trade with the United States, with U.S. exports dominating the relationship by a 9-to-1
ratio, according to a February 2001 study by the U.S. International Trade Commission for the House
Ways and Means Committee.
The sale earlier this year of $30 million in agricultural products and
medical items to Cuba has fueled
interest in extending what both Cuba and the United States contend is a one-time deal prompted by
the devastation of November's Hurricane Michelle.
Herald staff writer Judy Odierna contributed to this report