Miami's War of Words
For members of Miami's Cuban-American community, the war with Castro rages on
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.
Sánchez-Aballí uses another phrase popularized by exiles--"amnesia y amnistía" ("forget and forgive")--as a guide for political action in a post-Castro Cuba. It sounds like the pragmatic course followed by the post-Communist regimes of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where the consensus was that totalitarian rule had lasted so long and implicated so many people that it was impossible for new, democratic governments to prosecute human rights offenders. But like "no hay regreso," the slogan "amnesia y amnistía" cannot be taken at face value.
Certainly, the 10 million Cubans who stayed behind, says Sánchez-Aballí, will decide the fate of a post-Castro Cuba. It will be necessary to negotiate a democratic transition with post-Castro Communists, but only with those "who do not have blood on their hands," says the lawyer.
"It's going to be difficult to determine who does and who does not....I may not be the person to do it because I'm very angry." Not much room for amnistía, forgiveness, there. And, insists Sánchez-Aballí, the victims of Communism must be honored throughout the island. "We have to build monuments commemorating all those people who were killed or had to get on a boat or suffered human rights violations." Apparently, there won't be much amnesia either.
The Cuban-American National Foundation is generally thought to be the exile group most likely to exert influence in Cuba after Castro's demise. Local businessman Jorge Mas Canosa created the CANF in 1981 and built it into the country's most powerful and effective Cuba lobby organization, running it until his death from lung cancer in 1997.
But lately, under the leadership of his 37-year-old son, Jorge Mas Santos, the CANF sometimes seems adrift. In 1998, in response to Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba and his call for new humanitarian initiatives, the CANF suggested that surplus U.S. food be distributed to hungry Cubans, perhaps under the aegis of the Roman Catholic Church. With considerable embarrassment, the CANF backed off from the plan when its own supporters bellowed that it was a betrayal of the economic embargo.
More recently, the CANF stubbed its toe over the Elián affair. Mas Santos tried to broker an accord with Washington that would have allowed the boy to rejoin his father peacefully, but then beat a hasty retreat when the crowd in Little Havana expressed outrage over such a deal. When federal agents finally raided the home of Elián's Miami relatives and returned him to his father, the CANF's views on the incident weren't even solicited by the national press.
I ask Mas Santos what has gone wrong at the CANF since his father died. "Obviously, my father's death was a blow to the foundation," says the son, who tries to walk a fine line between praising the older Mas as irreplaceable and insisting that the CANF has survived his death better than critics suggest. He claims that CANF membership has actually increased by 20 percent, to 60,000, since Mas Canosa's death. He also points out that his father was fortunate to have a loyal son managing Mastec, the family's telecommunications business.
"I ran this company on a day-to-day basis since 1991 so my father could spend time on his passion, which was Cuba and the foundation," says Mas Santos, at the sprawling glass-and-concrete headquarters near Miami's airport where he directs Mastec's 10,000 employees. To give Mas Santos credit, he nearly doubled Mastec's market capitalization to $2 billion in the past three years. "I just haven't had enough time to devote myself to the foundation," he says. But he promises that will soon change because he has appointed a hands-on manager for Mastec and assumed the less demanding post of chairman.
The embargo against Cuba has been the CANF's primary issue, and Mas Santos bridles at assertions that it's a failed policy.
"Yes, if you look at the big picture, Fidel Castro is still in power," he concedes. But he goes on to offer a dubious defense of the embargo, one that I had not heard before. Thanks to the embargo, insists Mas Santos, the Cuban regime has lost so many potential trade revenues that it has been forced to cut back spending on its repressive apparatus. "That's why you see people in Cuba expressing their opinions a bit more and criticizing the regime," he says.
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.
Duran took part in the Bay of Pigs in 1961, when exiles clandestinely supported by the U.S. government launched an ill-fated invasion of Cuba. He was captured and served two years in prison there before being released. "As a youth, I was an extremist who believed the only solution was blood and guts," he says. "I've evolved to the point where I'm advocating that we start a dialogue with Havana to be able to visit our families in Cuba and push for a society there in which civil rights are observed. And because of my background, nobody can accuse me of being a Communist or a Castro sympathizer."
Invariably, when I ask more politically conservative exiles--such as Mas Santos, Iriondo and Sánchez-Aballí--about Duran, they make clear that while they consider his views anathema they respect him personally. I suspect that besides his pedigree, he impresses them as a man of great loyalty to his community. "This is a very close-knit society," says Duran. "My doctor and dentist are Cuban. Most of my clients are Cuban. My banker is Cuban. There are plenty of people who are millionaires today because they got their first loan on a handshake. And no matter what you hear, there is a surprisingly low rate of intermarriage."
There is another facet to Duran that binds him to elements in the exile community who don't share his liberal viewpoints: a penchant for conspiracy theories that pit Washington against the exiles. "A lot of us feel the only reason that Castro is still in power is because of U.S. policy," he says. "I happen to think that Washington is terribly afraid that if Castro goes, Cuba will become a haven for drug trafficking and money laundering, and illegal immigration will be uncontrollable." As a justification for the paralysis of Cuban policy, it sounds no more convincing than Mas Santos's claims that the trade embargo is encouraging dissent in Cuba, or Sánchez-Aballí's assertions that Castro might unleash biological warfare against southern Florida.
The war between Miami and Havana is by no means confined to the political realm. In between traumatic events, such as the Elián case and the shooting down of the Brothers to the Rescue planes, the conflict spills over into the cultural arena. In recent years, Miami has been rocked by protests, occasionally violent ones, because of the public display of works by artists living in Cuba, concerts by Havana musicians, the screening of Cuban films and visits by Cuban scholars.
My initial guide to the front lines of these cultural wars is Ricardo Pau-Llosa, arguably the best poet the Cuban exile community has produced. A gruff, brawny 46-year-old, he often wears a safari jacket and smokes a cigar. Pau-Llosa is that rarest of specimens, a poet of deeply conservative political convictions. "I'm opposing that monster Fidel and I'm called a fascist by people who claim to be liberals," he says. "I feel like I'm Rigoletto and I've wandered onto a performance of Tosca and I'm being ordered off the stage: 'Get off! Get off! You lousy clown, you're spoiling the opera!' Well, I think I should be on stage because without me the opera makes no f---ing sense."
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