People, not politics, drive Ybor City rally to reopen relations with Cuba

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TAMPA — Every month, Maylin Zaldivar manages to send $200 to Havana — to her parents and an uncle who struggle to get by there.

It isn’t easy.

Each time, Zaldivar has to reach out to friends and neighbors who have figured out the latest on how to pierce the restrictions on “remittances” to Cuba that were re-imposed under the Trump administration.

“The only ones who lose out with all these limitations are us and our families,” said Zaldivar, 39, of Tampa. “It is a sacrifice that we should not have to go through.”

She will join others to deliver their plea in person Sunday during a rally in Ybor City to urge normalization of relations with Cuba, sponsored by a new nationwide movement called “Puentes de Amor” — Bridges of Love. The event begins at 12 a.m. with a car caravan from a parking lot at 2109 E 11th Ave.

The movement was founded by Carlos Lazo, 56, who crossed the Florida Straits by raft from Cuba 30 years ago, earned a Bronze Star as a combat medic in war-torn Fallujah during the Iraq War, and has become a cheerleader for Cuba in his job as a Spanish teacher with a Seattle-area school.

Last March, Lazo reached out to then-President Donald Trump asking him to restore measures implemented under President Barack Obama to open fuller relations between the two countries. These measures enabled people in Tampa Bay to take commercial flights and cruises to Cuba, forge stronger academic and cultural exchanges, and entertain hopes that the area might host a new Cuban consulate.

Trump followed through on his campaign promise to roll back Obama’s initiatives. The Trump administration did not respond to the outreach from Lazo — including a three-week, 3,200-mile bike ride from Seattle to Washington, D.C., with his two sons and three nephews.

“When we got to Washington, D.C., we met our goal,” Lazo said. “Despite the fact that the doors of the White House were not opened for us, we managed to meet with some representatives.”

Lazo made headlines in 2005 after returning from Iraq when he was prevented from visiting his sons in Havana — Carlos Manuel, 19, and Carlos Rafael, 16. A few months later, the teens were allowed to travel to the United States and were reunited with their father.

“I lived the family separation as a personal experience and I know what it feels like,” Lazo said.

More than 15 cities in the United States, Canada, Europe and Latin America are now part of what Lazo calls “love’s network.” The list includes Tampa, Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas.

“I think the important thing about this movement is that we are working and asking for policies to be established for the good of families, education and development,” he said. “We want to send money to our friends and families in Cuba, too. They need it”.

Lazo, who will attend the Ybor City rally, pointed to the Tampa area’s deep historical and cultural ties with Cuba.

“Tampa set an example during the 19th Century to liberate Cuba,” he said, referring to the money raised here among Cuban cigar factory workers to fund the civil war against Spain. “Now, with Biden, the changes have not yet been made, but I will give the benefit of the doubt.”

Among the restrictions Trump reimposed was a cap of $1,000 per quarter on remittances to Cuba. Financial transfer giant Western Union closed hundreds of locations across Cuba and ended its partnership with Fincimex of Cuba.

Nine days before Trump left the White House, his administration announced that the United States was declaring Cuba a “state sponsor of terrorism” again — a designation dating to 1982 that Obama had rescinded.

Trump won Florida in the November election with help from Cuban-Americans in Dade County whose families fled the island nation after Fidel Castro assumed power there and adopted communism in the early 1960s. Ever since, these Cuban-Americans have favored a hard isolationist line against travel and trade in the belief it will topple the communist government and restore freedoms.

Rafael Pizano of Tampa shares this view and sees Puentes de Amor as the latest in a series of misguided slogans.

Pizano, 39, a Tampa firefighter and paramedic, works with international movements seeking democracy for Cuba and the release of political prisoners there.

“They have to legalize labor unions and allow other political parties,” he said. “Otherwise, it would reward bad behavior.”

Biden served as Obama’s vice president, but White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said earlier this month that the new president is no rush to make any major gestures toward Cuba.

“A Cuba policy shift is not currently among President Biden’s top priorities,” Psaki told reporters. “But we are committed to making human rights a core pillar of our U.S. policy and we are committed to carefully reviewing policy decisions made in the prior administration, including the decision to designate Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.”

Albert Fox, who has worked for years from Tampa to normalize relations with Cuba, said he hopes Lazo’s movement gets through to the new president.

“History has taught us that the policies and directives of the U.S. government not only have affected families but have gone against the interests of Cuba,” Fox said. “And for no reason.”