In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: What Cuba needs: Spring break

 

fgrimm@MiamiHerald.com

For those of us who survived the invasion of ’85, forgetting is not so easy.

The hedonistic hordes came out of the north by the thousands. Fort Lauderdale beach was strewn with their bodies. They jammed five and six and seven to a hotel room, laid siege to the shops and brought traffic on A1A to a near stop. They consumed so much beer that various joints along Fort Lauderdale Beach claimed to have set world dispensing records. The effects of that record-breaking consumption were plenty evident.

The town was overwhelmed. Fort Lauderdale found itself transformed into a wild party town, a municipality with an acute case of arrested development. It happened every spring through the early ’80s, but 1985 was the pinnacle of craziness, when 350,000 kids abandoned social restraints and convinced the city fathers that the need for change was damn near urgent.

Within a few years, Spring Break City had re-made itself. (Some of us, those forced to witness the inter-collegiate wet T-shirt contests at the Button day after day, have never quite recovered.)

When Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona looks back on those beery days, he doesn’t see some horde of drunken nuisances. Flake thinks of Fort Lauderdale, circa 1985, as the testing ground for a geo-strategic weapon that could bring down one of the last bastions of communism.

“I’ve often felt that if we want a real get-tough policy with the Castro brothers, we should force them to deal with spring break once or twice,” Flake said last month, during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s hearing on Sen. John Kerry’s nomination for secretary of state.

That provoked an angry reaction from Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey and the son of Cuban immigrants. Of course, Menendez was in a sour mood over unsubstantiated allegations about unseemly behavior down in the Dominican Republic.

There’s no proof that Menendez went wild in the DR. But if it surfaced, it would only prove Blake’s premise. Things tend to spin out of control down in the tropics.

It was not the first time that Flake suggested American college students could succeed where five decades of the Cuban embargo has failed. In 2009, campaigning for passage of the Free Travel to Cuba Act, Flake told Congressional Quarterly, “Let the Castro brothers deal with spring break once or twice, and we’ll see how much control they still have.”

Flake advocates removing restrictions that keep ordinary American citizens from traveling to Cuba. The present policy has an exception for religious, cultural and education groups. And Cuban Americans can travel back and forth to visit family members, a rather odd exercise for folks who are ostensibly here because they’re fearful political exiles. But the rest of us can’t go. We can visit China, Vietnam, Burma, Iran, but not Cuba.

The notion that spring breakers could overwhelm a backward, doddering regime might seem a stretch. But it’s not like our Cuban travel and immigration policies, anachronistic relics of the Cold War, make much sense. Try explaining, to someone from outside South Florida, the logic behind the wet-foot, dry-foot policy that allowed 10,757 Cubans who crossed the border out of Mexico last year to claim the instant financial, medical and residency benefits afforded to no other group of undocumented immigrants.

Or why someone born of Cuban parents in another country, say Spain or Venezuela, is similarly awarded the status of political refugee upon coming here, as if political exile were a hereditary trait.

Of course, most arrivals nowadays are hardly political refugees. A survey of visa applicants in 2009 by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana found what everyone already knew: “Overwhelmingly, applicants appear motivated to leave Cuba due to economic and family reasons.”

None of this would matter much if the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 had led to the ouster of the Castro government. Instead, those most likely to challenge the regime left. The counter-revolution emigrated to Miami instead.

A new strategy, based on spring breakers, could hardly be less successful. Send in a few hundred thousand cheap, rowdy, out-of-control students to challenge a control-freak totalitarian regime. Model it after the horrific invasion that took the Fort Lauderdale in 1985. No matter how many millions those kids spent, it wasn’t enough to keep an utterly overwhelmed Fort Lauderdale from instituting a drastic makeover. The kids were too much.

The Castro brothers wouldn’t stand a chance.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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