Monday, March 21, 2005

Keeping Sgt. Lazo Out of Cuba

The New York Times
March 21, 2005

Keeping Sgt. Lazo Out of Cuba

"Sometimes you just have to pray." - Carlos Lazo


Sgt. Carlos Lazo, a medic who returned to the U.S. from Iraq two weeks ago, still has the searing images of the ferocious assault on Falluja racing through his head. He drove an ambulance during the campaign and was accompanied by two buddies, who were also medics. His buddies mostly rode in the rear with the wounded.

At times the battle raged so loudly the three friends could barely hear one another. With earth-shaking mortars exploding all around them, and with the nearly constant din of gunfire and other explosives, Sergeant Lazo could not always be sure his buddies were all right.

"We would sing so we could hear one another," he said. "They called us the Latin team. All three of us were Latin American. One was Puerto Rican, one was Mexican, and I am Cuban-American. We would sing Spanish songs, sing loud, and then we would know everything was O.K."

Living through the combat in Falluja was "extremely intense," he said. "It was very sad, you know, to see somebody talking, like two hours before, and then later to see that person wounded, screaming. And what you try to do is calm him down, saying: 'Hey, relax, my brother. Everything is going to be O.K.' "

Sergeant Lazo, who turned 40 yesterday, is a member of the Washington State National Guard. His team of medics, which performed heroically throughout its tour in Iraq, was attached to a Marine regiment for the Falluja offensive. I interviewed the sergeant in Washington, D.C., where he is seeking support for a new, more personal mission.

An American citizen, Sergeant Lazo has two teenaged sons in Havana. He visits them as often as he can, but they do not want to emigrate to the U.S. Last June, during a two-week leave from Iraq, the sergeant visited relatives at his home in Seattle, then flew to Miami, where he had planned to board a flight to Cuba for a brief visit with his sons. He wanted very much to see them before heading back to Iraq.

But tough new restrictions on travel to Cuba by individuals with relatives on the island were about to take effect. "I went to the airport, but they wouldn't let anybody board the planes," Sergeant Lazo said. "There were two more days before the restrictions would take place, but they told me the planes were leaving empty."

The planes were flying to Cuba to pick up Cuban-Americans traveling back to the U.S. In anticipation of the tighter rules, no new passengers were allowed to fly to Cuba. Sergeant Lazo had to return to Iraq without seeing his sons.

Under the old rules, individuals authorized to visit relatives in Cuba could go there once a year, and more often in the case of family emergencies. They could visit cousins, aunts and uncles, as well as immediate relatives.

But with President Bush facing a re-election campaign, and hard-line Cubans in Florida complaining that the administration was not being aggressive enough with Fidel Castro, the rules were changed. Now relatives can visit just once every three years, and the visits must be limited to the immediate family. Emergency visits are not allowed.

"If my father or one of my sons is dying," said Sergeant Lazo - he paused to knock loudly on a wooden table - "I couldn't be with him."

The sergeant has not seen his sons in more than two years, and he will not be allowed to see them until next year. His new mission is to seek an end to the ban on travel to Cuba. He is being aided in this effort by the Center for International Policy, which has long opposed the travel restrictions.

Sergeant Lazo told me he never had any second thoughts about going off to Iraq. "I signed up for the National Guard and I swore to defend the United States, my adopted country," he said. "My duty was to serve."

But he thinks it's unreasonable for the government, which he was willing to die for, to prevent him from seeing his children.

The arbitrary, politically motivated restrictions on travel to Cuba are cruel, counterproductive and, frankly, absurd. They have hardly any real support outside the small group of aging anti-Castro reactionaries in South Florida. The restrictions are part of a 45-year-old U.S. embargo that has been nothing short of a complete and abject failure.

As long as these policies remain in effect, real people, like Sergeant Lazo, a true American patriot, will continue to suffer unnecessarily.