Archive for Sunday, February 29, 2004

Kansas Cubans say pain of refugees drives policies

February 29, 2004


Cuban-born artist Fito Garche has no shortage of reasons to despise Fidel Castro.

Before Garche fled Cuba and came to Lawrence, he said, Castro's forces spied on him and beat him for criticizing the government.

"Castro is a big liar," Garche said. "The Cuban people don't have money, don't have food, don't have nothing."

Still, Garche said the Bush administration was wrong to increase travel and trade restrictions between the two countries as a way to punish Castro. The crackdown was chronicled last week in the Journal-World series "Trading with the Enemy?"

Critics of Bush's recently adopted hard-line stance say it's catering to a tiny but politically important minority of Cuban exiles in Florida who don't represent the view of the average Cuban-American -- let alone the average citizen.

"Sadly, we have allowed our foreign policy in Cuba to be dictated more by emotion than by reason," said Pedro Irigonegaray, a Cuban-born Topeka attorney who favors normalizing U.S.-Cuban relations. Irigonegaray is representing Lawrence artist Bob Augelli in his fight with the Bush administration over travel to Cuba.

Garche fled Cuba on a raft in 1994 and still has children there. He came to Lawrence two years ago, after living in Miami for seven years.

He said many Cubans in America live with a sense of anger, guilt and loss caused by fleeing for the United States.

"Because you have to abandon your family and your country and your language, all this creates a feeling that hurts because of the distance," he said. "You can live in the United States for 40, 50 years, and it doesn't really cure."

Garche said Cuban-Americans in Florida who supported Bush's tough new policies were motivated by money and power that have come with 40 years of opposing Castro. Americans must be allowed to visit Cuba freely, he said, in order to expose Castro's regime for what it is.

"Everybody here in the United States could see with their own eyes the reality," Garche said. "It's not a romantic dream, his communist state. It needs to be known that people are not granted any civil liberties."

But Mariela Ferretti, a spokeswoman for the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, an anti-Castro group, doesn't agree with that logic.

"All these years, there have been people from other countries that are democracies, traveling to Cuba," she said, putting Europeans and Canadians at the top of the list. "All of these people put together have not made a dent into the regime."

In 1985, government police beat Garche, he said, and destroyed a painting he'd done that questioned Castro's expulsion of religion from Cuban life.

In addition to criticizing Castro, Garche illegally sold jewelry to tourists for dollars. When he fled, Garche said, he was being watched by government agents and feared he would be sent to prison.

Garche is supportive of Augelli and others who are being punished by the Bush administration for unlicensed trips to Cuba. Augelli is trying to settle the U.S. Treasury Department's claim of $37,000 against him for making four trips to Cuba in the late 1990s. Augelli has a month to respond to a recent offer of a reduced fine paid within the next year.

Garche said he thought he'd left human-rights abuses behind when he fled Castro's island. Now, he's not so sure.

"Bob Augelli, in this moment, is not free in the U.S.A." Garche said.

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