CubaNews / April 2007
By Larry Luxner
Carlos Lazo never expected to become a war hero — or, for that matter, a symbol in the battle to end the travel ban to Cuba.
But he did, and now the Iraqi War veteran has dedicated virtually all his free time to fixing what he calls a monumental injustice.
“I’m fighting for the right of all Americans to go to Cuba,” Lazo told CubaNews during a two-hour interview in Washington last month.
“I would be very ungrateful if I said, ‘please make a bill for Cuban-Americans to go there whenever we want, but no one else.’ I’m not in a position to deny the people who welcomed me here that right.”
Born in 1965 to a housewife and a cigarmaker, Lazo was raised like any other Cuban child, growing up in the Havana suburb of Playa. In fact, nothing much exciting happened in Lazo’s life until the moonless night in 1988 when he and a friend attempted to flee Cuba in a rickety wooden boat.
“We spent three days in the water,” the 42-year-old recalled as if it happened yesterday. “Actually, we were dying and were saved by the Cuban Coast Guard. They delivered us to the police, and they sent me to jail for a year.”
In 1992, Lazo tried again — using a stronger boat rigged with the engine of a 1951 Champion lawnmower. This time, he and five other balseros made it to within six miles of Key West. All of them were rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard and allowed to stay in South Florida.
Lazo lived in Hialeah with his mother until 1998, when he resettled in Seattle and joined the National Guard out of a sense of obligation.
“I was already 35 and working as a counselor for the mentally disabled in Washington state,” he said. “I learned more English in six months in Seattle than I did in six years in Miami.”
During this period, Lazo would visit Cuba once a year — sometimes more than that — spending as much time as possible with his two sons from a previous marriage, Carlos Manuel and Carlos Rafael.
“I visited Cuba frequently, and had a very good relationship with my ex-wife’s family,” he said. “I was sending about $100 a month, and the whole family was eating with that $100. At that time, $100 there was like $1,000 here.”
Lazo’s last visit to Cuba was in April 2003. In November of that year, his Washington National Guard unit was deployed to Iraq, and he was sent to Camp Anaconda, a military base 40 miles north of Baghdad.
Lazo, who had been trained as a combat medic, got a job taking care of wounded Iraqis — both civilians and captured insurgents. In time, he learned to speak Arabic fluently.
Lazo’s two-week leave finally came in June 2004.
“I returned to the U.S., and the first thing I wanted to do was go to Cuba. I was in a war zone and wanted to see my sons, and the kids wanted to see me. But I knew that new restrictions were about to take effect on July 1, so two or three days before they went into effect, I flew to Miami for my flight to Havana.”
The soldier was in for a rude awakening.
“When I got to Miami Airport, I found out the Bush administration was not letting passengers board the plane because they were afraid the people wouldn’t come back on time,” he said. “It wasn’t just me, it was everybody. I asked what happened, and was told ‘Treasury is not letting people board the plane. The flight is leaving empty and they’ll be picking up passengers in Havana.’
“I was so upset,” Lazo recalled. “There was a TV reporter from Channel 51, so I took out my ID showing I was in the army. I told them that because of the politics of this administration, I couldn’t embrace my children, and that I would never vote for George Bush.”
When he got back to Iraq in July, Lazo made a videotape complaining about his pre-dicament and sent to members of Congress. It eventually made its way onto MSNBC, and from there, his story quickly spread.
Lazo appeared on TV many times — from talk shows to news programs — and was interviewed by the Miami Herald, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.
In late 2004, Lazo and 12 other medics were sent to Fallujah to support a contingent of Marines battling insurgents.
“We were so close that our own mortars were killing Marines. I was in the ambulance, driving around dead kids in the street, picking up soldiers. The first day, we had 56 casualties,” he said. “We rescued people under fire while being attacked by RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]. I remember crying in that ambulance, driving and in tears while holding the hand of a dying soldier the age of my son.”
For his bravery, Lazo was awarded a Bronze Star. But it didn’t bring the soldier any closer to his goal of visiting his boys in Havana.
“The administration refused to give me a waiver, not even to go to Cuba for 24 hours. Then some congressmen started suggesting that to resolve the problem, I could bring the kids over here. They talked to the State Department, and then my kids were called to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.”
In July 2005, the State Department took the unusual step of granting Lazo’s sons expedited U.S. visas so the boys could join their father in Seattle. They eventually did, but if the White House’s intent was to shut Lazo up, as many critics have charged, the attempt didn’t work.
Lazo has since met with more than 50 members of Congress — Democrats and Republicans, lawmakers who favor relaxing the travel ban and those who want to keep the ban in place. He’s been encouraged in this effort by such groups as the Center for International Policy and the Center for Democracy in the Americas’ Freedom to Travel campaign.
“I left Cuba for various reasons, first of all because I had been a prisoner,” he said. “When I came out of jail, I couldn’t find a job. I felt discriminated against, but there were other reasons as well. I wanted to have a better life, to live in freedom, and in better economic conditions. But that didn’t mean I would forget about my family.”
He added: “They say this is a way to keep dollars from the dictatorship, to bring down Fidel, but it won’t. Of course not. It won’t modify Cuban society or bring down the Cuban government at all. But I don’t think the people who implemented this cruelty even believe it themselves.”
Orlando bishop Thomas Wenski, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ committee on international relations, praised lawmakers like Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Bill Delahunt (D-MA) and Charles Rangel (D-NY) who seek to lift the ban.
“No one should be prevented from visiting a dying relative or attending a loved one's funeral simply for having traveled to Cuba once in the previous three years,” Wenski said in a recent statement, adding that the policy does no honor to the country.
Added Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas: “As Cuba enters a new era, so should America, and replace our policy of isolating Cuba with one favoring engagement, travel and trade.”
Lazo eventually did go to Cuba, in January 2007 — because by then it had been well over three years since his last trip — to visit a brother, aunt, uncle and other cousins still living in Havana and Cienfuegos.
His presence on the island was virtually ignored by Cuban media, despite his near-celebrity status in Washington.
In Miami, Lazo is easily recognized, though not everyone likes him or agrees with him. Sadly, the medic told CubaNews he’s received threatening phone calls and e-mails from right-wing Cuban exiles in Miami.
“They’re basically offensive and insulting, implying that something will happen to me,” he said, adding that he’s been called a “Communist bastard” among other things.
“Most of the Cubans who still support this policy came in the 1960s. Those who came in the ‘80s and ‘90s want to visit their families. Lincoln Díaz-Balart came in the first plane that escaped with Batista. These people don’t want to go back. They were professionals, businessmen, people with money who lost everything in Cuba. When I was born, the revolution was already there. I was the son of a cigarmaker.”
Yet Lazo says the Díaz-Balart brothers and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) can’t change their minds now “because they don’t want to look like losers.”
“They made a mistake implementing this cruelty. The majority of people in Miami say they are against it. Even people supporting the travel ban for all other Americans say this family restriction is wrong.”
In fact, he told us, “older people come up to me in the street and say to me, ‘I hate Castro, but this thing with the family [restrictions] es una mierda.’”
Lazo adds: “You cannot forget the Miami radio factor. This small, vocal group of fanatics intimidate people. They control the media. People are afraid to speak out. It’s hard for me to go to Miami and do a program there. You might say something to a journalist, and the next day something else comes out.”
Lazo said people are free to form their own opinions about him, but that nobody deserves to be labeled a friend of the Castro regime simply for opposing the 45-year-old U.S. travel ban.
“If Cuba says they’re for lifting the travel ban because they want families to kiss each other and have a good relationship, then I agree with the Cuban government. If they say they’re for democracy, I’m for that too. I cannot be concerned about what other people think.”
Yet Lazo — who plans to return to Iraq when his unit is redeployed there, probably in 2008 or 2009 — declined to give his own opinions on the embargo itself.
“Some people try to drag me into supporting the lifting of the embargo against Cuba. I don’t even want to comment on that. I don’t want the cause of love which I’m fighting for to be contaminated with any other cause.”