CubaNews / December 2003
By Larry Luxner
Thousands of people across the United States were disappointed last month when a House-Senate conference committee — fearing a certain veto by President Bush — decided to strip from their $89 billion transportation bill a controversial amendment to lift the Cuba travel ban.
But few were more disgusted than Rep. Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who has led the fight against the U.S. embargo in the House of Representatives for more than three years now.
“Politics have again triumphed over principle,” he fumed. “Just as we’ll never have a rational farm policy as long as presidential campaigns begin in Iowa, we’ll never have a rational Cuba policy as long as presidential campaigns are perceived to end in Florida — because the temptation to kowtow to small minorities in one state is too great.”
On Sept. 9, the House voted 227-188 to strip the U.S. Treasury Department of money to enforce travel regulations to Cuba; in October, a similar measure passed by a 59-36 margin in the Senate.
Flake readily concedes that Cuba’s arrest and jailing of 75 dissidents earlier this year — and the execution of three men who tried to hijack a ferry to Florida — convinced many lawmakers who had supported his measure in the past not to do so this time.
In July 2002, the House approved Flake’s Cuba travel measure on a 262-167 vote, and in July 2001, the same Flake measure passed by a margin of 240-186.
It’s hard to imagine a lawmaker more conservative than Flake.
A 40-year-old father of five, Flake served as a Mormon missionary in South Africa and Botswana in the early 1980s, then worked for the Goldwater Institute before going into politics himself. He’s now into his second term as representative of Arizona’s Sixth District, which includes the Phoenix suburb of Mesa and surrounding areas.
Flake, interviewed by CubaNews early last month, is better known nationally for his opposition to Washington’s current Cuba policy than any other single issue — something of a surprise considering Arizona’s relatively small Cuban population.
“I took a poll of all the Cuban-Americans in my district, and both of them said I’m on the right track,” he joked, then turned serious. “It’s an issue of freedom. Arizona doesn’t have agricultural sales to Cuba, and that’s maybe why I’m taken more seriously on this issue than some others, because I don’t have specific business interests. It puts the issue where it ought to be fought.”
Curiously, Flake’s obsession with Cuba grew out of a one-year stint in the African nation of Namibia, where he ran the Foundation for Democracy in 1991, the year Namibia gained its independence from South Africa.
“We monitored the election process and brought in constitutional scholars to help draft their constitution,” said the lawmaker, who speaks Afrikaans but not Spanish.
“When SWAPO [the South West Africa Peo-ple’s Organization] came back and ultimately formed the government, many of their top officials had since turned away from socialism and communism, and wanted nothing to do with SWAPO or the Eastern bloc.
“But if you mentioned Fidel Castro, they bowed their heads. Even those who were disenchanted with the socialist movement had revered Castro because he took them in and supported them when nobody else would.”
That reverence for Castro evidently didn’t rub off on Flake, who has refused to meet with the Cuban leader both times he’s traveled to Cuba.
“I think it would send the wrong message,” said the lawmaker, who frequently refers to Castro as a thug. “With my limited time in Cuba, I don’t want to listen to some has-been talking about the wonders of socialism. Anybody who meets with him for five hours comes out saying it was a waste of time.”
He adds: “For all the propaganda about English being taught in Cuban schools, Castro himself uses a translator. And they talk about free elections, while Castro is dressed in army fatigues.”
Early last year, Flake teamed up with Rep. Bill Delahunt — a Massachusetts Democrat about as liberal as Flake is conservative — to form the House Cuba Working Group. Today, this group consists of 50 lawmakers — half Democrat, half Republican — dedicated to ending the travel ban and normalizing U.S.-Cuban diplomatic and trade relations.
Among the many distinguished photos on the wall of Flake’s Washington office is one of the lawmaker with a smiling President Bush aboard Air Force One.
Yet Flake says Cuba policy is one area where he and Bush couldn’t disagree more.
“It has always troubled me, long before I was elected. And it’s not just this White House, it’s administration after administration,” he said. “Republican foreign policy is schizophrenic on this issue. We argue that increased commerce, contact and trade with countries like China and North Korea will help bring those countries around, and that isolation doesn’t work. Yet with Cuba we say exactly the opposite.”
Last year, Flake began airing his controversial views not only in Washington, but also in Miami, where he was the keynote speaker at a 2002 conference at the Biltmore Hotel.
“It was the first time any Republican member of Congress had actually spoken against the embargo. More than 300 people came to hear us, and of course there were protests outside, but they were small and disorganized. A couple of years ago there would have been massive protests.”
The reason, he said, is that most Cuban-Americans now favor some relaxation of the status quo. “There’s been a sea change in Florida. You have a solid majority of Cuban-Americans who want to lift the travel ban. But if it were really enforced in South Florida, there would be a far greater majority.”
“What bothers me more than anything else is that these people [who enforce the travel ban] are the same people who took those Cubans on the boat a few months ago, negotiated with the Cuban government and turned them back to certain 10-year prison terms.
“Those same bureaucrats, who have exhibited such poor judgement in the past, are making decisions about who is worthy to travel to Cuba and who isn’t. We can’t go on with this charade.”
Flake says he’s convinced that “if you have Americans freely traveling throughout Cuba — subject to the limits Castro puts on them — ordinary Cubans will be better off. Some people will go to the beach. Others will go for educational reasons, and some will meet dissidents.”
During Flake’s last trip to Cuba, he wasn’t able to see Oswaldo Payá, founder of the Varela Project, but he did meet with three other dissidents — all of whom are now in prison.
“Cuba is a gorgeous country ruined by the policies of a dictator,” he said. “Anybody who travels there is impressed, if not surprised, by the fact that ordinary Cubans love Americans. They hold no ill will towards Americans at all.”
Flake is fond of quoting a Cuban joke in which one man asks “What are the three worst failures of Castro’s revolution?” and the other answers, “Breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
“The other side of that joke is the three successes of the Cuban revolution — health-care, literacy and sports — but those come at a pretty high price,” he told us. “And things won’t be rosy as soon as Castro is gone. It takes awhile to build up a good economic infrastructure. That’s the biggest problem with our policy now. It’s not very forward-looking. We act as if once Castro’s gone, we’ve achieved everything.”
Flake derides those who say the demise of the 77-year-old revolutionary is imminent.
[Kevin Whitaker, the State Department’s coordinator for Cuban affairs, was quoted in the November issue of CubaNews as saying: “We’re in the end game. This is the end of the Castro regime.”]
“Frankly, Castro could last another 20 years,” said Flake. “When I was down there last time, we met a guy on the side of a road who was 101 years old. With our luck, that could be Castro too.”
In the meantime, he says, the travel ban should be lifted, “and once it goes, the rest will be history pretty soon.”
“It’s becoming increasingly uncomfortable for the administration to continue the travel ban, because it’s very inequitably applied,” he said. “It’s not enforced against anybody from Florida — nor should it be.”
Asked how he lobbies against current Cuba policy, Flake said he relies on common sense, persistence and the rules of the game.
“With some issues, like the one involving Bacardi and Section 211, you bring that stuff out in the open and force them to defend it.
“On the broader issue of travel, you just overwhelm them. There was a real effort made this year to keep the Flake amendment from being offered. The reason we haven’t been able to have a straight-up bill is because in regular order, you can’t bring that on the floor. But they can’t stop an amendment to an appropriations bill.”
He added: “You also use leverage in other areas. Take the travel ban, for example. Tell them that if you want to continue enforcing it, then let’s see that it’s enforced across the board. I don’t want to go that route, but my guess is that they’ll rethink this thing.”
In October, the UN General Assembly voted 179-3 to condemn the U.S. embargo. Only Israel and the Marshall Islands sided with the United States, and the Israelis are heavy investors in Cuba’s agribusiness and real-estate sectors.
“We ought to lift the embargo regardless of what the General Assembly says,” Flake insisted. “I never thought what they said meant anything. In fact, that’s a blow to my cause.”
While Flake’s travel amendment didn’t go anywhere in 2003, the lawmaker says things will definitely open up after next year’s presidential elections.
“I’m hopeful it’ll happen before the elections, but certainly directly afterwards,” he said. “If we had a secret vote in Congress on what to do about the Cuba travel ban, we’d have not only a veto-proof majority, but there would be very few dissenters.”
Flake, now in his second two-year term in the House, plans to run for re-election next year. He’d also like to return to Cuba as soon as possible. “I’ll continue to make my case.
“Sooner or later, if you concede that this is all about politics, farm-state politics will trump Florida politics,” he said. “It hasn’t happened yet, but when you look at that vast swath of Midwestern states, their combined voters are greater than Florida’s. Sooner or later, we’ll overwhelm them.”