Castro foe reassesses his hard line

Published May 20, 2007

TAMPA - At Jose Marti Park on Saturday, a crowd of Cuban-Americans laid a wreath on the statue of the Cuban freedom fighter. They sang the Cuban anthem. Men in sparkling guayaberas voiced hope that the U.S. would soon lift its embargo against their motherland.

Ralph Fernandez stayed home.

Time was, the Tampa lawyer would have been there to do battle with anyone suggesting that the U.S. re-establish relations with Cuba.

"Whenever Fidel Castro enjoys dollars, he exports terrorism, " Fernandez, who has defended former political prisoners, told the St. Petersburg Times in 2004.

But now, he said, his views are evolving.

"I've always been for change, " he said on Friday, "and maybe my position needs to change also."

An epiphany of sorts came, he said, with the publication of the Iraq Study Group's findings, which recommended that the U.S. open diplomatic talks with Iran and Syria.

If those "bright minds" said to engage those countries, Fernandez said, who was he to say that the U.S. shouldn't be talking to Cuba, too?

"We're a global community, " Fernandez said. "We'd better talk to everybody. Even if we're going to fight them, we'd better talk to them."

But it's also true that Fernandez is simply getting tired of fighting.

"It's the passing of time, " he said. "We've all become casualties. ... The exile community is aging and dying, and their progeny is apathetic.

"We've all lost. What is there left to argue about?"

The embargo is an issue that has long divided Tampa's Cuban community.

Back in 1999, when a group of anti-embargo protesters came to rally at Jose Marti park, an angry group of Cuban exiles - Fernandez's cohorts - met them at the gate and locked them out.

"We represent the Cuban republic, " Fernandez said of the incident in 2004. "Why are we going to let these pinkos come in and deface what Jose Marti stood for?"

On Saturday, Fernandez's old political foe, Al Fox, gathered representatives from 17 anti-embargo groups nationwide to discuss forming a unified platform to present to lawmakers.

On Friday, Fernandez turned up his nose at the proceedings: "It's Al Fox and the same crew that has accomplished very little and has absolutely no influence over the national politics, " he said.

But in a press conference Saturday, Fox and his associates seemed to echo Fernandez's new arguments.

"The U.S. now is talking to North Korea, talking to Iran, mending its relations with Libya, and Cuba is 90 miles away and we have this estranged relationship, " said Tony Zamora of the Foundation for the Normalization of U.S.-Cuba Relations.

While the two sides may be starting to sound alike, it seems that someone, at least, still bears a grudge.

Although they had obtained a key to the park from the city, Fox's group found itself once again locked out. Someone had changed the gate at the last minute. Fox used bolt cutters to cut the lock.

Told of the incident, Fernandez showed a spark of his old combativeness.

"Good!" he said. "It's not their park!"

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at 661-2442 or srosenbaum@sptimes.com.