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Miami's War of Words

For members of Miami's Cuban-American community, the war with Castro rages on
Jonathan Kandell
From the Print Edition:
Bo Derek, Jul/Aug 00

(continued from page 2)

Ideally, Mas Santos would like to see the CANF maintain its focus on Washington and speak out on continued human rights violations in Cuba. "Our battle isn't in Little Havana," he says, with the Elián affair clearly in mind. "But we're at the center of every crisis with Cuba by choice or not, because people look to us for the mainstream view in the community."  

In recent years, though, a number of smaller, more nimble, and demonstrably passionate exile groups, with far lesser budgets and Washington clout than the CANF, have received a great deal of media exposure in Miami. Their impact has been enormous throughout the Elián affair. They participated in the vigils outside the Little Havana home of Elián's great-uncle. While the CANF sought a political solution to the affair, these groups found religious reasons to keep the boy in Miami: he was a modern-day infant Moses rescued from the waters.  

Sylvia Iriondo heads one of these groups, called Mothers and Women Against Repression in Cuba. An attractive, elegantly dressed, gray-haired grandmother, she organizes anti-Castro demonstrations and prepares political broadsides for distribution or broadcast in Cuba. She founded the Mothers in 1994 after she was sickened by an incident in which a Miami woman, Magda Montiel Davis, on a visit to Havana praised and kissed Castro during a public ceremony (she was part of an entourage of liberal-minded Cuban exiles). "To this day, I can't bear to repeat that woman's name," says Iriondo, with a shudder. In a protest near Montiel Davis's home, Iriondo led a group of women wearing black to express their grief. Black dress has become her group's usual attire in demonstrations since then.  

But it was a much more tragic incident that gained Iriondo her political renown. On weekends, she occasionally flies in small planes belonging to Brothers to the Rescue, an exile group that reconnoiters the Florida Straits for boat people escaping Cuba. "If you see a speck down below, you drop them fresh water and food, and alert the Coast Guard," explains Iriondo. While she was on just such a mission in February 1996, Cuban MiG fighters shot down two small Cessna planes piloted by the Brothers in international air space. A third Cessna carrying Iriondo miraculously escaped back to Florida. "They attacked without warning," says Iriondo, who has been back in the air on other rescue missions, undeterred by that bloody episode.   Besides her political activities, Iriondo runs a Key Biscayne real estate brokerage, which is booming because of demand from wealthy residents of other countries fleeing economic disarray in Ecuador, narco-terrorism in Colombia, and general uncertainties in Venezuela under the presidency of the populist-minded Hugo Chávez. Lately, says Iriondo, some of her best clients have been wealthy Venezuelans, who have decided to trade up from their Miami vacation houses to more permanent, lavish residences. She knows their pain. Forced to leave behind a life of affluence in Havana, she was barely a teenager when she arrived in Miami in 1960.  

"We are struggling for the same things we were fighting for 40 years ago," says Iriondo. "Many people have said that the Cuban exile community has lost its clout. I think it's totally the opposite." She cites as a recent example of the community's effectiveness its successful opposition to initiatives to lift the food embargo to Cuba, "in spite of the very powerful agricultural lobby" in Washington.   Like other political figures here, she is distrustful of the national media and insists on her own tape-recording of our interview. "If you read some of the stories in the press, Cuban-Americans are paranoid," she says. "But there are many strange circumstances and things that happen in the exile community that have their roots in massive infiltration and disinformation." Yet when I press her for details, she declines to give any.  

Inevitably, the conversation drifts to Elián, whose case, Iriondo says, has unified the exile community more than any other issue in years. "Coverage in the press, especially the national media, is totally one-sided," she complains. Our interview takes place as a federal judge is about to rule on a petition by Elián's Miami relatives that the boy be granted an asylum hearing. I ask her what she plans to do if the judge's decision is unfavorable. "Our organization will abide by the ruling of the courts," she promises.  

The judge ends up rejecting the petition, but Elián's relatives still refuse to comply with Attorney General Janet Reno's order that the boy be turned over to his father. When I turn on my television set, I catch sight of Iriondo in her black protest garb. Despite her earlier promise, she is in the front row of a mass of demonstrators in front of the relatives' home in Little Havana, intent on preventing federal agents from taking custody of Elián.  

Alfredo Duran is one of the few Cuban exile politicians who has believed all along that his community has let itself get carried away by its emotions over Elián--and arguably the only one to say so aloud. "Every time I think it's over, it just gets worse," says Duran. The 63-year-old lawyer has been a longtime political maverick. He is a board member and founding member of the Cuban Committee for Democracy, a group that advocates the lifting of the trade embargo and favors negotiations with Havana to prepare for the island's post-Castro future.  

Despite the emotions unleashed by the Elián case, Duran insists that the exile community has become more politically tolerant. "People who think like me don't feel we're going to get beaten up or killed or bombed," he says. "Those things might have happened some years ago, but not today."  

Duran allows that his background makes him a special case. His family strongly supported Fulgencio Batista, the dictator whose excesses made Castro's revolution possible. Duran's stepfather was president of Cuba's senate under Batista, and led his family into exile as soon as Castro marched into Havana.  


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