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Obama’s Thank-You To Castro

black-and-white image of activists on a boat decorated with American flags

Ramon Saul Sanchez (right) leans down to throw a wreath at a Democracy Movement demonstration on July 4, 1999.
Photo by Carl Juste, courtesy the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin.

A well-mannered guest always remembers to follow a visit with a thank you for his host.

So President Obama is sending a little thank-you gift to Cuban President Raul Castro after his trip to the country last month. Instead of a bouquet of flowers or a box of chocolates, Obama is gift-wrapping an exiled Cuban dissident who has been living in the United States for the past 50 years. Our government has long offered political shelter to Cuban refugees – but no more, at least not for Ramon Saul Sanchez.

Sanchez arrived in Florida in 1967, when he was 12 years old. In the decades that followed, he became a prominent member of the Cuban exile community in Miami, staging hunger strikes, street rallies and boat flotillas off the Cuban coast to protest the Castro government and demand freedom in his homeland. He has been an active member of the Democracy Movement, based in Miami, and currently serves as its president.

He has lived in this country legally, but without permanent status, on the basis of an indefinite parole document that he received upon arrival. For years, Sanchez declined to formally apply for permanent residency because he was afraid he would lose his political leverage and, potentially, the ability to return to Cuba should political conditions improve. “I always feared that if I became a U.S. citizen, the Cuban government would say ‘you are not Cuban, so why do we have to listen to you?’” Sanchez said.

In 2002, he changed his mind and formally applied for residency. Fourteen years passed without word from the federal government while he continued to live in the country based on his parole document.

Then, just under a month after Castro brazenly claimed – as Obama stood haplessly nearby – that Cuba holds no political prisoners, Sanchez received word that his residency application has been denied and that he must leave the United States “as soon as possible.”

So if the Castros can’t find any political prisoners in their own jails, Obama proposes to send them a perfect candidate.

The timing has not been lost on observers. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, both Florida Republicans, issued a joint statement suggesting Sanchez’s application was denied in retaliation for his criticism of not only Castro, but certain aspects of the Obama administration’s approach to Cuba.

Sanchez’s attorney, Wilfredo Allen, believes that Sanchez will eventually be granted residence under the Cuban Adjustment Act. Sanchez plans to ask immigration services to reconsider the application’s denial and to seek federal court protection in the meantime. If his efforts fail, Sanchez has said he will not attempt to start over in a new country; he will return directly to Cuba to “face death by firing squad, or jail, or whatever the consequences may be.”

I doubt it will come to that. I suspect there will be enough of an outcry to ensure that Sanchez won’t be going anywhere at all. After all, this is an election year, and Florida will be among the most important battleground states – probably the most important overall. Obama will not purposely put his favored successor, Hillary Clinton, on the spot. Yet if his administration does not reverse course on Sanchez’s residency application, the likely Democratic candidate and former secretary of state will be forced to take a stand that will upset one group or another. One position would alienate Obama’s reflexive defenders, who consider any criticism of him a form of betrayal. The other would inflame Florida’s important Cuban community, and to a lesser degree the national Latino population on which Democrats pin a considerable part of their electoral hopes.

So maybe Castro will just have to settle for a nice handwritten note on pretty White House stationery. Or maybe not. If Castro actually receives Obama’s ill-advised “gift,” we will add one more shameful item to the American president’s feckless – let’s use the word he and his supporters seem obsessed with – legacy.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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