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Love him or hate him, Frank Calzón is not going away
CubaNews / November 2004

By Larry Luxner

This past April, as delegates to the 53-nation UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva finished voting on a resolution condemning Cuba for the jailing of 75 dissidents, a shouting match erupted between the two opposing sides, and a Cuban diplomat knocked Frank Calzón unconscious.

“I was in the lobby, in front of more than 100 diplomats, and he came up behind me and hit me on the side of the head,” Calzón recalled. “The American ambassador [Kevin Moley] helped capture this fellow, together with four or five Swiss guards. To this day, I don’t even know his name.”

Whether you should be outraged at the Cuban diplomat for hitting Calzón — or disappointed that he didn’t punch Calzón even harder — depends largely on your views toward the well-known exile and his controver-sial organization, the Center for a Free Cuba.

Over the years, Calzón has written dozens of op-ed pieces for the Miami Herald, the Washington Times and other newspapers, and there’s no question that thousands of fellow Cuban exiles, from Otto Reich and Mel Martínez down to the old men playing dominoes in Little Havana, admire him for his spirited defense of human rights on the island.

Yet an equal number of people are put off by Calzón’s in-your-face, confrontational style.

Observes the online publication CubaSocialista:Calzón, who in August called CubaNews “a piece of garbage” during an academic conference in Miami, nevertheless agreed to let us interview him last month at his office right off Washington’s Dupont Circle.

Surrounded by black-and-white photographs of desperate Cuban families holding up snapshots of their imprisoned loved ones, the 60-year-old activist explained to us what he does for a living.

“We are an independent, non-partisan nonprofit organization dedicated to the gathering and the disseminating of information on Cuba and Cubans,” he said. “I have been involved in research and advocacy for many years, and in 1997, a group of people who were involved with me felt that it was a good time to concentrate on Cuba.”

Calzón grew up right near Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucíon, known in those days as Plaza Civica. He left the island in November 1960 and began his life in the United States washing dishes in White Plains, N.Y. He attended Miami Edison High School and from there, went on to Rutgers and Georgetown.

Calzón represented the Cuban American National Foundation for six years, then left in 1986 because, he says, “I had an opportunity to work at Freedom House and because some elements of the CANF were moving towards involvement in local politics, and I’m not interested in that. I think it’s a waste of time."

He says he’s been a human rights advocate all his life.

“With all due respect, I don’t have any more enemies than Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Jesse Jackson or anybody who has defended the rights of people who are being oppressed,” he said. “I try not to be pejorative, I try not to get personal, I try to deal with the issues. Unfortunately, the totalitarian mind tends to get to people when they cannot win an argument on the merits.”

One of Calzon’s most recent confrontations took place in Tampa, during the Oct. 8 National Summit on Cuba. A panel discussion on the wisdom of the 43-year-old embargo quickly turned ugly, and Calzón — outraged by what he saw as the panel’s overwhelmingly anti-embargo bias — had to be asked several times to sit down.

Explaining his fury, Calzón told CubaNews “you cannot pretend this is a conference in which various points of view are going to be fairly discussed, because that wasn’t the case. It’s dishonest.”

One thing is not in doubt: the Center for a Free Cuba is the largest single recipient of money under the U.S. Agency for Interna-tional Development’s Cuba program.

According to USAID’s own figures, it has given Calzón’s group over $5 million since its establishment in 1997.

“We administer a USAID grant in order to break Castro’s monopoly on information. We send books, publications, shortwave radios, pencils and paper to the island, and we distribute articles written inside Cuba to NGOs,” he said. “We work with many organizations, but because of the way the Castro government has chosen to react to our work, we try not to mention them by name.”

Calzón said his organization employs five or six full-time people on an annual budget of $1.2 million. “The way it works, we have spent less than $1 million in the last two or three years from USAID, and about $250,000 from private sources. A lot of our expenses are simply purchasing equipment.”

The activist says he’s generally pleased with the Bush administration’s hard line.

“I’ll never be satisfied until Cuba is free. But I think the president and his foreign-policy team, namely Mr. Powell and Ms. Rice, understand the nature of the Castro government. Our policy should be to deny Castro resources and try to help the people of Cuba at the same time. Taking into account what has happened in Cuba since then, I think the president has developed a thoughtful policy. But no policy is perfect.”

Even with its faults, he says it’s certainly better than the policies pursued by the Clinton administration.

“I’m sorry to say that Mr. Clinton’s legacy for Cuba is the disastrous U-turn on refugee policy, in which — for the first time since Castro came to power — Cuban men, women and children were picked up off Florida’s shores and returned to Cuba,” he said. “Despite our efforts, this [Bush] administration has kept that policy in place. I think the idea of returning refugees to Cuba is an abomination, and I have raised that issue at every possible opportunity.”

But isn’t it unfair to let Cubans who entered the United States illegally stay, while sending back Dominicans, Haitians or Mexicans who may be just as desperate?

“There is a law on the books, the Cuban Adjustment Act, and the law ought to be implemented. Cuba is the last remaining totalitarian communist government, so Cubans are supposed to be treated he same way refugees were treated from Poland, Hungary or other formerly communist states,” Calzón answers. “The day Cuba has a free press, free elections and labor unions like Mexico or El Salvador, they can be treated like other people.”

Another thing that annoys Calzón is the recent rush by state governments, port authorities and U.S. exporters to sign memos of understanding with Cuba’s Alimport, which has bought well over $700 million worth of U.S. food commodities since November 2001.

“By now, everybody agrees that if Fidel Castro has money to spend, U.S. companies ought to sell,” said Calzón. “The problem is that those companies often asked to sign a memorandum in which they commit themselves to work for the lifting of trade sanctions. From my point of view, I think the Justice Department ought to see if those folks need to register as foreign agents.”

Calzón also said he’s glad to see the Euro-pean Union finally getting tough on Castro after years of criticizing the White House.

“People in Washington tend to look at the world through the prism of U.S. policy. The issue has always been the conflict between the Cuban people and the Cuban government. I think the Europeans have tried a policy of engagement in good faith, and that really hasn’t worked.”

Yet when asked about the UN’s resolution Oct. 28 condemning the U.S. embargo by a vote of 179-4, Calzón shrugged.

“It’s no more important than the UN’s an-nual resolution against Israel. Do the Israelis give any importance to that vote?”

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