Carter trip: view from Miami cafes

Many question Castro's motives in giving wide latitude to the ex-president.

In a small storefront on West Flagler Street, tucked between a pet clinic and a combination Pentecostal church/notary public, is the headquarters of Alpha-66.

Inside, the walls are lined with yellowing portraits of dead warriors, young men cut down in pursuit of the liberation of their homeland from Fidel Castro. There are other photos as well – action shots of middle-aged men in muddy fatigues sloshing through Florida's Everglades in training exercises.

The office of a hard-line paramilitary group sworn to overthrow Cuba's communist government is perhaps the last place in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood you might expect to hear words of support for former President Jimmy Carter and his friendship mission to Cuba.

But Andres Nazario-Sargen, an Alpha-66 leader, understands perhaps better than most the potential importance of a straight-talking advocate of democracy and freedom. "Carter did well to talk to the Cuban people about human rights," Mr. Nazario-Sargen says. "He gave the people a little bit of orientation. And that can be useful."

Twenty blocks away at the popular Versailles restaurant, Santiago Portal lifts a handmade sign high above his head: "Vote: Carter Next President for Cuba."

"Carter's visit to Cuba is very good for Cuban liberty – the best thing in 43 years," he says. This week in sidewalk conversations, watercooler debates, and cafe discussions across Little Havana, Mr. Carter is winning praise for the blunt message he has delivered in Cuba. But at the same time, many here say the former president is dangerously naive in his belief that the United States should lift its boycott of Cuba as a goodwill gesture.

It is a view that President Bush is expected to echo next Monday when he arrives here for a political fundraiser for his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

The president's visit is aimed in part at attempting to overshadow the historic Carter trip and reassert White House control over Cuba policy. The administration is expected to announce even tighter sanctions and measures to help advocates of reform inside Cuba.

It also comes as Jeb Bush is facing a potentially tough reelection bid this fall and may need every vote he can get from the heavily Republican Cuban-American community.

On a broader level, the debate over the Carter trip comes as the exile community is still struggling to recover from the highly emotional battle two years ago over Elian Gonzalez, the little boy who was returned by the Clinton administration to his father in Cuba.

"It is like a death in the family. You don't talk about it, but it is always there," says Juan Baz, a local lawyer.

Many in the community believe they were treated as second-class citizens and were wrongly type-cast in media reports as right-wing fanatics. But they say they aren't about to remain silent in the growing debate over Cuba policy.

Some say that Castro permitted Carter wide latitude – including the unprecedented opportunity to speak directly and frankly to the Cuban people – in an effort to win over American public opinion to end US trade sanctions.

"Castro is a fox," says Raul Lopez, an accountant and insurance agent who fled Cuba in 1966. "In Castro's mind, the important point is for Jimmy Carter to bring to the American people that the US should take the first step," Mr. Lopez says. "It was a bold move on his part, but Castro's gamble may have paid off."

Not everyone in Miami's Cuban exile community supports the US boycott. Some say that increased trade and other ties to the island will help foster democratic reforms – the same dynamic in US policy toward China.

But this remains a minority opinion here, in large part because members of the Cuban exile community can vividly recall the day they were forced to surrender homes, land, and businesses to a communist government that had no use for free enterprise or political opposition.

Many say there is no evidence that Castro's outlook has changed – other than increased desperation for hard cash. "What Cuba is looking for is to replace the subsidy that was lost when the Soviet Union stopped being the Soviet Union," says Jose Basulto, leader of the exile group Brothers to the Rescue.

"I think it was beautiful that Mr. Carter presented for the first time to the Cuban people a definition of what democracy means and is," Mr. Basulto says. "But I am completely opposed to when Jimmy Carter said that the United States should take the first step."

He adds, "If the United States takes the first step, there will be no step by Castro. He doesn't hold his part on any agreement to have reforms on the island."

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