Both men are seen as orthodox party leaders intensely loyal to Castro. A former Cuban ambassador to the Soviet Union, Balaguer in particular has long wielded much influence inside the party, which is technically separate from the government but populated by the same players. Balaguer and Lazo also serve inside Cuba's government on the nation's supreme governing body, the Council of State that Castro heads as president. Lazo is also a first vice president on that council.
As the party's first secretary for Havana for nearly a decade, Lazo has been heavily involved in the government's ''battle of ideas,'' an ongoing ideological campaign launched during the international custody battle over the boy Elián González, who returned to his family in Cuba in June 2000. The ongoing ideological campaign seeks to engage Cubans, particularly younger ones, in national politics and generate support for Castro and his policies.
It was not immediately clear what the move meant, but it follows by days the replacements last week of two Cabinet members -- the ministers of finance and transportation -- with younger people. Balaguer, who served in the rebel army that fought during the revolution that brought Castro to power in January 1959, represents a slightly older generation of leaders, known as ''históricos'' for their role in Cuba's revolutionary history. Lazo, although just 12 years younger, joined the party as a young man just four years after Castro formed his revolutionary government. One of the most visible black leaders in Cuba's power structure, Lazo has spent most of his adult years as a labor leader and as a regional party leader. [End]
Passions were expected to run high, and Fernandez and Fox did not disappoint. Trenam Kemker attorney Rob Stern said it was the most informative and emotional discussion he had seen during the six years the firm had sponsored the breakfast gatherings.
So who scored the most points?
When I reached Fernandez on Tuesday afternoon, he was convinced he won over the undecided people in the audience. And Fox said that by contradicting Fernandez, he succeeded in prompting people to do their own research and draw their own conclusions. After talking to both men, it's clear they don't agree on much of anything. One of the biggest issues is Fernandez's insistence that Castro has supported terrorism. Fox told me that was propaganda. Fernandez, who also noted European countries are planning to boycott Castro because of his recent persecution of dissidents, said there is overwhelming evidence to support his claim.
Fox also spoke of humanitarian efforts being made by those who travel to Cuba, and said more could be done if travel restrictions were lifted. "You could have a mother in Cuba dying of cancer and not be able to send her $10,000," said Fox, president of the Washington-based Alliance For Reasonable Cuba Policy. "But you can send your favorite Iraqi cousin as much money as you want."
Fernandez said such humanitarian talk is just a cover for carpetbaggers hoping to take economic advantage of a good relationship with Castro. "Don't be misled by these "I-found-it humanitarians' who take an old wheelchair to Cuba in a million-dollar yacht and then party for 10 days at Marina Hemingway with 15-year-old Cuban girls," Fernandez said.
Clearly, the best result of this healthy debate is awareness of the issue, and I'm glad we could have it in Tampa. They tell me you couldn't have this debate in Miami. [End]