Exile Leaders Ready to Resume Talks with Cuban Government
MIMI WHITEFIELD AND ALFONSO CHARDY Herald Staff Writers
Two months after a videotape of a Cuban-American lawyer planting a kiss on President Fidel Castro's cheek seemed to derail a Havana attempt to reach out to Cubans abroad, the effort at mutual understanding may be back on track. In recent weeks, as furor in Miami's Cuban-American community over the video abates, some key participants in the April 22-24 meeting with Cuban officials in Havana have begun to talk again of the need for such meetings.
Initially, many were incredulous that the Cuban government had made public the tape of the reception hosted by Castro, without considering the political damage it would do in Miami.
Some participants who consider themselves moderates felt manipulated because the video was edited to show only the most effusive displays of support for Castro. They said it incorrectly made everyone at the conference appear to be a big Castro fan.
But Cuban Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina has been phoning some participants to offer explanations and encourage them not to give up on talking to the Cuban government.
Now, most of them -- even those angered by the release of the tape -- say they are willing to put the episode behind them and continue working to bridge differences between Cubans on the island and abroad.
The release of the tape "was such an irrational thing to do," said Emilio Cueto, a Washington lawyer who attended the conference, but skipped the reception where Miami attorney Magda Montiel Davis bussed Castro. "It was a breach of the rules of the game."
Still, Cueto said, he hasn't given up on dialogue and will return to Havana. "I think it's the only way. There's no other way to create a peaceful transition to democracy," he said.
It is unclear where the woman at the center of the storm stands.
"I have a lot to say, but it's not the right time or place to speak out," said Montiel Davis, who has been insulted, threatened and picketed since the video aired.
However, two other Miami exiles also shown on the tape returned to Havana in mid-May to arrange for a shipment of humanitarian supplies to the Cuban Jewish community. While there, they met with Castro and Robaina.
Eddie Levy and his wife Xiomara Almaguer, leaders of Jewish Solidarity, declined to say what Castro told them, but said Robaina told them that release of the video had been a mistake.
"The person who released the tape apparently thought it had been cleared for distribution, but it wasn't," one Cuban official told The Herald. "It was poorly edited."
Levy and his wife said Robaina also told them that the process of reaching out to Cubans abroad was "irreversible" and that Havana "remains committed to the spirit of communication."
"I accepted their explanations. I believe they are sincere and from the heart," said Levy, who traveled to Cuba with his wife Sunday, with a shipment of 2,575 pounds of powdered milk and medicine.
Alicia Torres , who has said her critical comments to Castro were edited out of the tape, also accepts the explanation of a mistake.
Now it's up to Havana to push forward with an agenda that interests Cubans abroad, she said. "The ball is in their court," she said.
But her sister, Maria de los Angeles Torres , a professor at DePaul University in Chicago who also took part in the conference, said she's through with the process.
"I've turned the page on the official dialogue. That's not where my head and heart are," she said, adding that the process has lost credibility.
Torres plans to continue making contact with Cubans on the island on her own: "There are thousands of people talking every day in many ways without the help of the Cuban government."
However, among conference participants her views are in the minority.
Max Lesnik, a Miami magazine publisher, said he's willing to return to Havana but wants any future meeting to have very concrete goals.
"The process has not ended. It is good to continue it in hopes of bringing about relief to the conflict (between Cubans)," said Lesnik.
Here's what's happened since the April 22-24 conference: * Creation of a special office within the Foreign Ministry (MINREX) to handle exile and emigre matters. It is headed by Jose Cabanas, a career diplomat who has served in Canada and MINREX's Americas II Department, which deals with the United States and Canada.
The office will develop policies and handle issues related to travel and "helping communities abroad maintain their Cuban roots," said Jose Luis Ponce, a spokesman at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.
* Elimination of a waiting period of five years for Cubans who have left the island legally and want to return for a visit. What constitutes a legal departure has yet to be defined, but the new rule apparently doesn't apply to rafters.
Cuban-Americans who came before 1979 may now travel on U.S. passports. Those who arrived in the United States in 1980 and after still must travel on Cuban passports.
* Permission for a limited number of young Cubans living abroad to study at Cuban universities. Ponce said the first students may arrive as early as next semester.
* Study by a Cuban National Assembly commission of possible legislation defining Cuban citizenship and the rights Cubans living abroad have. How Cuban citizenship is lost and how it may be regained also is under review. Such clarification is important to exiles who may eventually want to reside or invest in Cuba.