Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Tripping over Cuba

Progreso Weekly

By Jane Franklin

Poor Robert Torricelli. Four years after losing his senate seat because of corruption, he tries to invent a life in which he stars as a man of principle – the hero in a struggle to bring freedom to Cuba. In real life, Rep. Torricelli (D-NJ) took a trip to Cuba November 20-23, 1988. J. Scott Orr reported (Newark, NJ, Star-Ledger, November 24) that Torricelli talked with President Fidel Castro one night “from 8 p.m. until 2:30 a.m.” Orr noted that in “touring Cuba during the trip,” Torricelli found living conditions “quite good compared to other Latin American nations.” Torricelli said, “‘Living standards are not high, but the homelessness, hunger and disease that is witnessed in much of Latin America does not appear evident.’”

That trip was his one and only trip to Cuba.[1] But because it did not fit with his later career as a leader in waging political and economic warfare against Cuba, Torricelli tried to bury its memory. Now, in “How a few days changed my life -- and Castro’s” (Star-Ledger, August 6[2]), he has replaced that real trip with a fabricated trip to Cuba in 1992. During his real-life visit, the Soviet Union was still intact, but Torricelli has time-traveled into the future, after the Soviet Union’s collapse. “By the time I took my seat in the living quarters of the Cuban dictator,” he writes, the “collapse of Soviet communism severed the $6 billion Russian lifeline.” Torricelli has Castro discussing the fall of the Soviet Union and the overthrow of Romania’s government, which did not take place until 1989, a year after Torricelli’s actual meeting with Castro. Since the references would not have been made in 1988 and since Torricelli did not return to Cuba, this self-serving dialogue, like the whole 1992 visit, is impossible fantasy.

Torricelli next concocts an equally impossible return from the phony 1992 trip. He claims that a “few weeks” after his visit he “was having lunch in the main salon of a friend’s yacht in Coral Gables with leaders of the exile community.” At that luncheon, “We began drafting the Cuban Democracy Act.” But that’s not how it happened.

To understand what did happen, follow the money. In 1989, with favorable impressions from his recent trip to Cuba still on his mind, Torricelli favored efforts to lift the U.S. trade embargo against selling food and medicine to Cuba. He was concerned about the embargo’s effect on the people of Cuba.[3] Then the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the wealthiest and most influential of all the Cuban-American groups, began to pay special attention to Torricelli, contributing money and luxurious treats “amid the wealthy and elite of Miami’s Cuban community,” as he describes them in the article. He became bosom buddies with the late Jorge Mas Canosa, the multimillionaire chairman of CANF.

In 1991, according to a former aide, Torricelli, as chair of the House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, took only two days to decide to focus on Cuba. He issued an edict concerning the Cuban American National Foundation: “Whatever the foundation wants, the foundation gets.”[4] At a hearing of the subcommittee on July 31, 1991, Mas Canosa proposed the Cuban Democracy Act. Contrary to Torricelli’s statement that they began drafting the CDA after his fictional visit to Cuba in 1992, I have a copy of a draft of that legislation from November 8, 1991. It was leaked to several people, including me, and criticism led to sharp changes to parts of the bill before Torricelli introduced it in the House on February 5, 1992.

By August 1992, for Torricelli’s re-election campaign, CANF’s Free Cuba Political Action Committee (PAC) contributed the maximum contribution allowed of $10,000 and individual CANF members contributed another $16,750 for a total of $26,750 to Torricelli,[5] who was representing them so effectively in Congress. Many Cuban-Americans, even those opposed to Fidel Castro, believed that tightening the embargo would only lead to more economic hardship for the Cuban people. But Torricelli’s purpose was clear. As he told an audience at Georgetown University in 1993, “My objective is to wreak havoc in Cuba.”[6]

In 1996, CANF delivered money and a bloc of Cuban-American voters to help Torricelli become a U.S. senator. Revelations about his dishonesty cost him his senate seat in 2002. Now he is creating a strangely dishonest -- but revealing -- portrayal of his life.

[1] Cuban officials have confirmed that Robert Torricelli did not return to Cuba after his 1988 visit.

[2] To access Torricelli’s article, copy and paste this URL into your browser: http://www.nj.com/opinion/ledger/perspective/index.ssf?/base/news-0/1154887532280380.xml&coll=1

[3] Wayne S. Smith, “Our Cuba Diplomacy: A Critical Reexamination,” Center for International Policy, Washington, DC, last updated May 22, 2003.

[4] Paul Anderson and Christopher Marquis, “N.J. Congressman Makes Castro’s Demise His Crusade: Get-Tougher Bill Pushed by Torricelli,” The Miami Herald, February 2, 1992.

[5] Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, “Cuban-American Contributors Open Checkbooks After Torricelli Exhibits an Anti-Castro Fervor,” The Wall Street Journal, August 3, 1992.

[6] Many people have written about Robert Torricelli’s remarks at Georgetown University, October 20, 1993. See, for example, Multinational Monitor editorial, “Sham Engagement,” November 1994.

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