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July 16, 2005
Visas Offered To War Hero's Cuban Sons
The State Department has offered the sons of a Cuban-American war hero fast-track visas so they can visit him in the United States.
By Pablo Bachelet
WASHINGTON - The State Department is making the unusual offer of giving expedited visas to the Cuban sons of Iraq war hero Sgt. Carlos Lazo so they can visit him in the United States, people familiar with the case said Friday.
The offer is the latest twist in a case that opponents of the U.S. embargo against Cuba have highlighted as a symbol of the human cost of travel restrictions to the island. The move is unusual because it is the U.S. government that has reached out to the Lazo family with the offer, rather than the other way around. Critics say the Bush administration and its
congressional allies are simply trying to take an embarrassing case out of the public spotlight.
In a phone interview with The Herald, Lazo confirmed that his sons, Carlos Manuel, 19, and Carlos Rafael, 16, have been invited to the U.S. Interest Section in Havana for an interview on Monday to explore visa options.
A National Guard medic who received a bronze star for helping injured troops while under fire in Fallujah, Lazo tried and failed to visit his sons last year, just before new regulations went into place that limited family visits at once every three years. Lazo had been visiting his sons regularly since 1994.
He renewed his campaign again in March, when his younger son was hospitalized for 10 days for a viral infection.
''I think the restrictions are unjust, cruel, leave no room for humanitarian exceptions, and in addition attack my right as a U.S. citizen to travel,'' he said.
Lazo's photo, clad in bandanna and combat fatigues, was a regular fixture in last month's House and Senate floor debates on the travel restrictions. Opponents of the measures argued that the travel curbs needlessly separate families while doing little to weaken the government of Fidel Castro.
Supporters of the measures say Castro uses the money from travelers to sustain a repressive communist regime. Legislative initiatives aimed at easing the restrictions failed to pass Congress last month.
Lazo has met with more than 50 members of Congress, including one 40-minute encounter with Florida Sen. Mel Martínez. It was Martínez, Lazo said, who first proposed having his sons visit their father in the United States.
''I am aware of the State Department's process,'' Martínez said in an e-mail. ``My office will help in any way we can within the limits of current U.S. policy toward Cuba. I believe it would be good for his sons to visit a free society and a free country.''
Kevin Whitaker, who heads the Cuban affairs office at the Department of State, spoke with Lazo on two occasions about the effort to give his sons visas.
The State Department declined to comment on the visa offer, saying they do not speak about visa-related cases.
Opponents of the travel ban say the Bush administration is motivated by more than just humanitarian considerations in a case that raises questions over just how many more fast-track visas the State Department is willing to award to families whose needs are as urgent as Lazo's but less high-profile.
''They want to get this story off the radar screen,'' said Sarah Stephens, who heads the Center for International Policy's Freedom to Travel Campaign, an advocacy group that argues for more contact with the island.
Lazo said he initially turned down Martínez's offer because his kids were in school, but now he is hopeful the reunion can take place during the summer vacations. He has sent his sons money to apply for passports but worries that it will all come to naught because Cuban regulations forbid draft-age youngsters from leaving the island.
Washington, which Lazo says is well aware of the Cuban laws, could then blame Havana for refusing to let his sons travel to the United States.
''I trust that people have the best of intentions,'' said Lazo, who spent a year in a Cuban jail for trying to flee the country in 1988. ''But the road to hell is paved with good intentions,'' he added.