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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

With the Miami spring warming into subtropical summer, Radio Mambí also turns up the heat several degrees. The dramatic, baritone announcer Armando Pérez-Roura proclaims that Miami is still the front line of the Cuban exile community's 41-year war against Fidel Castro. After decades on the air, Pérez-Roura still manages to craft fiery new insults to hurl at the Cuban dictator: "The greatest Mafioso who ever lived...the greatest criminal this continent has given birth to...this damned assassin...this demonic madman who knows there is no escape...." Pérez-Roura continues with a recitation of the names of martyrs who on this very day in years past were shot by Castro's security forces or drowned while escaping Cuba.  

This is all by way of a warm-up for today's guest interview with a female journalist who offers a psychological profile of Castro, purporting to explain his appalling insistence that little Elián González be returned to his father in Cuba. Fidel is suffering from "geriatric hyperactivity...a regression towards his traumatic childhood," asserts the journalist-turned-shrink. "He has always been insane--he's just crazier now than before." And then comes the piercing Freudian insight: When Castro was six (yes, Elián's age!), his father forced him to live with his godparents and attend a Catholic school, which he despised. The aging dictator, says the journalist, sees in Elián a painful childhood memory he wants to exorcise.  

The program concludes with call-ins. The spokesman for an exile group asks people to demonstrate in front of the Hyatt Hotel against Cuban scholars attending a Latin American academic conference in Miami. "Protest against the injecting of Castro's venom into our midst!" yells the caller.  

The Cuban exile community lives every day torn between Miami's two essential realities: the bile of anti-Castroism and the lure of a vibrant, sophisticated metropolis. No other immigrant group in American history has achieved economic success and political clout as quickly as the Cuban exiles, who number roughly 800,000 out of Miami-Dade County's 2.1 million inhabitants. They began arriving in what was an aging, decaying tourist trap 40 years ago, and have revitalized the city into a business and cultural mecca for Latin America.  

Miami's port dominates shipping between the two New World hemispheres. So many Latin American Web companies have set up headquarters here that Net investors hype the city as "Silicon Beach." Miami is the vortex of Spanish-language television broadcasting and music recording. South Beach, with its mix of Latino and European sensibilities, seems to be in the midst of a perpetual fashion shoot--its wannabe models parading along Ocean Drive with perfectly sculpted bodies and a tan look of sexy, ruthless chic. Everywhere in the city, inventive restaurants offer the delectable new Latin fusion cuisine that has spread north to New York, Boston, even Montreal. And Miami's nightclubs--sensual palaces of son, samba and salsa--are unrivaled.   Cubans don't necessarily approve of all that glitters in the new Miami. Yet this much is certain: Miami as capital of Latin America and bridge between northern and southern hemispheres would never have been possible without the culture, money, language and energy of the Cuban exiles.  

What is also certain is that neither prosperity nor longtime residence in Florida has sapped the anti-Castro passions of the exile community. Support for the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, including even humanitarian food and medicine shipments, remains unyielding. A dialogue with Havana is out of the question, even though most exiles believe planning is necessary now to ensure a peaceful transition to democracy and capitalism on the island after Fidel goes. If anything, the Elián case has stiffened the community's resolve to maintain its paramount influence over U.S. policy on Cuba and has strengthened the hard-liners. And in its politics, this is still a one-issue town: the corruption and incompetence of public officials are acceptable as long as their intolerance of anything that smacks of concessions to Havana remains unbending.   Having lived and worked in Latin America off and on for 40 years, I have traveled to Miami often, either on assignment or by choice. But during a dozen days here on my most recent visit, I deliberately seek out exile leaders I haven't met before. In most cases, they are figures who have risen to prominence in politics, culture and business since I was last here in 1995.

Although I have planned my trip long before Elián's arrival, the emotional convulsion he has unleashed is a constant reference point during my sojourn--and a reminder of how little attitudes have changed.   Rafael Sánchez-Aballí is a 35-year-old lawyer who worked with his partner, Nick Gutiérrez, and others to craft the Helms-Burton law that imposes sanctions on companies that invest in Cuba. But I have been told that within the political spectrum of the exile community, Sánchez-Aballí is considered a moderate. I meet with him at his office high above the row of corporate headquarters that line downtown's Brickell Avenue. It's a Saturday morning, and he's working overtime, wearing sneakers, blue jeans and a baby-faced grin that make him look like a recent grad. He turns on his tape recorder--to guard against being misquoted, he explains--and, speaking into the mike, asks permission to tape our conversation as required by law. I give my assent and ask for his as I activate my own machine.  

Sánchez-Aballí then launches into an impassioned defense of exile community political views: the unfair perceptions of Miami Cubans as radical right-wingers ("What's so extremist about wanting democracy and freedom for Cuba?"); the criticism of the Cuban lobby ("What's wrong with trying to influence political elites to favor our political issues?"); charges that the economic embargo against Cuba is misguided and ineffective ("We don't need to be trading with our enemies"). For 30 minutes or so, Sánchez-Aballí is an articulate spokesman for predictably hard-line anti-Castro views.  

But then, quite suddenly, his rap turns more darkly conspiratorial. The dangers of Castro, he says, cannot be underestimated. Castro's agents, he asserts, may be eavesdropping on this interview and have probably bugged his house and infiltrated his network of friends and acquaintances. He insists Castro has amassed a stockpile of biological weapons. "All he has to do is get a little Cessna with some of those weapons, make it crash in the Everglades, and south Florida is going to have a tremendous problem," says Sánchez-Aballí. He believes he knows just what could motivate Castro to launch such a suicidal attack: "Castro wants to be an American citizen, wants to play for the New York Yankees, and wants to become president of the United States. If he can't have that, he wants to die from the bullet of a Marine, so that he can be immortalized."  

Moving on to another scenario, I ask Sánchez-Aballí how he envisions Cuba after Fidel. "No hay regreso--there is no return," he says. The phrase, heard often among Miami exiles, at first sounds like a mature acknowledgement that their present and future lie in the United States. Sánchez-Aballí is under no illusion that the mass of exiles will ever return to Cuba. He was only a baby when he came to Miami and is unsure himself whether he would move to Havana. But in fact, "no hay regreso" is a slogan of tenacious sullenness for having been forced to abandon a way of life that can never be resurrected.  

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