Havana Conference: To Go or Not To Go
MIMI WHITEFIELD And ALFONSO CHARDY Herald Staff Writers
Rafael Huguet, a former anti-Castro fighter, changed his mind twice before deciding to accept Havana's invitation to a conference this weekend between government officials and nearly 200 Cubans living abroad.
Bernardo Benes, the Miami banker who was vilified for helping organize a similar meeting in Havana in 1978, said he was also invited but didn't hesitate to say no.
To go or not to go. It is an easy decision for some Cubans living abroad, a hard and wrenching decision for others: too political, some say, and maybe too close to being an endorsement of President Fidel Castro. Not political enough, say others who want to talk about political change.
Some who have been invited to the conference "Emigration and the Nation" April 22-24 hope it will be the beginning of an important opening in Cuba. But others say they are going even though they don't like the limited scope of the meeting.
Officially, the Cuban government says the conference will begin a process of achieving normal ties with Cuban exiles and emigres, more cultural and social exchanges, and improved contacts between divided families. It has invited Cubans from 43 countries.
Privately, though, some Cuban officials say that topics such as the possibility of Cubans abroad retiring in Cuba, obtaining dual residency, investing and studying in Cuba, and facing easier travel regulations may be raised at the meeting.
Huguet, a Miami land developer, said that at first he decided he would go, then decided against it because the meeting wouldn't deal with political change. But after more reflection, he concluded the conference might indeed open doors to political reforms.
Mari Teri Vichot, a Miami publicist, faced no such dilemma in accepting her invitation.
"I feel very honored," she said. "I feel it will be a good beginning that will lead to better relations between the two communities and will solve some immediate cultural and immigration problems. . . . These are the first steps on the path to reconciliation."
Others who decided not to go are concerned they might be used by the Cuban government for publicity purposes, are unclear about what their role might be, or say they don't want to be perceived as Castro sympathizers.
"I have no problem talking with Cuban officials," said Enrique Lopez, who has traveled frequently to Havana as a consultant to U.S. telecommunications firms authorized to talk business with Cuba.
But when Cuban Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina personally invited him to the conference in February, Lopez said no. "I'm not a sympathizer of the revolution; I'm a realist and I told Roberto that, face to face," said Lopez, president of AKL Group.
Others who don't consider themselves sympathizers say they nevertheless see no harm in going to Havana.
Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, president of Cambio Cubano -- "Cuban Change" -- and an anti-Castro fighter who spent 22 years in Cuban prison, said his group plans to send three members as an official delegation: his daughter, Patricia Gutierrez; Gutierrez's husband, Sergio Sanjenis, the group's coordinator in Puerto Rico; and Barbara Curbelo, a social worker.
Gutierrez Menoyo said Cambio Cubano realizes that the agenda of this week's conference is limited, but hopes it will open the door to other meetings in the future at which political topics will be discussed.
Several other members of Cuban Change and other organizations such as the Cuban Committee for Democracy have been invited as individuals and plan to attend the conference.
Any contact between exiles and the Castro government provokes strong feelings in South Florida, and merely being invited has triggered verbal attacks against some of those on the guest list.
Even before Havana released a partial list of invitees earlier this
month, a number of the expected participants received a letter from the
anti-Castro group Alpha 66 warning they could become "military targets"
if they traveled to Cuba.
Alpha 66 leaders have acknowledged drafting the letter but deny mailing it to anyone. The FBI is investigating.
This week's meeting is the first get-together between Cuban officials and Cubans living abroad since the 1978 "dialogue," which resulted in the release of more than 3,600 political prisoners, the resumption of regular charter service between Cuba and the United States and the reunification of thousands of Cuban families.
The 1978 meeting was also controversial. In some exile circles, the word dialoguero -- dialogue-seeker -- became synonymous with traitor and several of the 140 Cuban exiles who took part in two meetings in November and December 1978 paid a high price for their participation.
Bombs exploded at the homes and businesses of a few; the careers of some languished; and two key participants were murdered shortly after the dialogue. Exile terrorist groups claimed responsibility for the killings.
Benes, who saw his banking career suffer after his participation in the 1978 meetings, said he still believes in dialogue and sees the conference this week as "an opportunity to exchange views" but won't be going "for very private and personal reasons."
Max Lesnik, a Cuban Change member and magazine publisher, said he is well aware of the meeting's limited scope, but decided to go "in the belief that once you start to talk about anything, then it opens the door to talk about other things."
The last time Lesnik saw Cuba was in 1961, when he fled in a small boat with fellow guerrilla fighter Gutierrez Menoyo, who had also become disillusioned with the direction the revolution was taking under Castro. Gutierrez Menoyo returned later in a commando raid and was captured.
Meanwhile, some exiles say they're going to the Havana conference with their own agendas.
Magda Montiel Davis, a Miami immigration attorney who is also treasurer of the pro-dialogue group Cuban Committee for Democracy, said she will push for a plan that would encourage the United States to issue more visas to Cubans, and thereby stop the dangerous exodus of rafters.
Lazaro Farinas, a former member of an armed anti-Castro group and now an import-export executive, says he intends to raise the issue of political liberalization in Cuba. At this point, he said, the conference agenda is less important than the fact that Havana is reaching out to Cubans abroad.
"Look at me. I was a terrorist, a violent adversary of the Cuban government, and I'm going because I'm interested in beginning a process of political and economic opening," he said. "The important thing is to break the ice."
Some of those invited aren't at all unfriendly to Havana. Andres Gomez, the leader of the pro-revolution Antonio Maceo Brigade, sees his role as helping Havana fight the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
Others are more interested in economics than politics.
Roberto Solis left Cuba during the Mariel boatlift in 1980. He now heads a small construction company and is the president of the Cuban American Professionals and Entrepreneurs, a newly created group that favors lifting the embargo to permit U.S. investment in Cuba.
"It's time that relations between the United States and Cuba became much more harmonious," Solis said. "We must be up to the minute and well-informed about what's going on in Cuba so when the embargo is lifted, we'll be ready."
Notably absent from the meeting will be some key members of the 1978 delegation who weren't invited.
Among them: Maria Cristina Herrera, a professor at Miami- Dade Community College; Marifeli Perez-Stable, a New York sociologist; Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a University of Pittsburgh economist; Miguel Gonzalez Pando, a Florida International University professor; and Jorge Roblejo Lorie, who heads a group that has worked for the release of Cuban political prisoners for decades.
* A partial list of those invited by the Cuban government to the conference. The government released a partial list, and The Herald contacted others. It was impossible to verify that all those in the government list would, in fact, attend.
Xiomara Almaguer Levy, sociologist
Francisco Aruca, president of Marazul charters and director of Radio Progreso
Raul Barandella, ex-captain of the Cuban army
Ruth Behar, University of Michigan anthropologist
John Cabañas, president of C&T charters
Ramon Cabrera, member of Cuban-American Professionals and Entrepreneurs
Roberto Carballo, Brigade 2506 veteran
Mariana Castro, Antonio Maceo Brigade
Emilio Cueto, lawyer
Barbara Curbelo, social worker
Raymundo del Toro, Cuban-American Committee for Peace
Vicente Dopico, businessman
Alfredo G. Duran, lawyer
Lazaro Farinas, import-export executive
Angel Fernandez Varela, banker, ex-professor of Fidel Castro and a former CIA employee.
Amalio Fiallo, organizer of Participative Democracy courses in Cuba and other countries.
Andres Gomez, Antonio Maceo Brigade, editor Areito magazine
Patricia Gutierrez Zalas, publishing house manager
Rafael Huguet, land developer
Max Lesnik, editor of Replica magazine
Eddie Levy, president of Jewish Solidarity
Vivian Mannerud, president of ABC charter company
Felix Masud Piloto, DePaul University professor
Luis Mendez, retired investment banker
Luis Miranda, Casa de las Americas, New York
Magda Montiel-Davis, lawyer
Luis Ortega, journalist
Lisandro Perez, director of Florida International University's Cuban Research Institute
Nicolas Rios, editor of Contrapunto magazine
Jesus Riveron, Cuban Americans for Dignity group
Sergio Sanjenis, Cambio Cubano coordinator, Puerto Rico
Roberto Solis, president of Cuban-American Professionals and Entrepreneurs
Luis Tornes, Brigade 2506 veteran
Alicia Torres, head of the Cuban-American Committee Research and Education Fund
Maria de los Angeles Torres, DePaul University professor
Nelson Valdes, University of New Mexico professor
Mari Teri Vichot, publicist