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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 1)

But ideology alone isn't enough to define Pau-Llosa's brand of politics. He nurses an unrelieved anger at a paradise lost--the Cuba he left behind when he was only six years old and which he has reconstructed from memories that are more his parents' than his own. "Cuba was such a unique civilization," he says, with a sense of acute pain. "We lost a tropical Venice, a Caribbean Florence, something worth so much more than those little pieces of lost real estate that so many exiles cry about."  

To try to recapture the old Havana, Pau-Llosa would hang out every night at Café Nostalgia, a Miami nightclub where grainy, black-and-white pre-Castro films of the Beny Moré Orchestra, Olga Guillot and other former performance greats are screened. "Olga Guillot's gown cones as she hovers across the stage," Pau-Llosa writes in one of his poems, part of his best-known anthology, Vereda Tropical ("Tropical Path"). "Beny Moré's Orchestra behind her dims reverently as she opens her mouth to sing 'Vete,' leave me (more like Get out)...Each day, Cuba becomes grainier and grayer...."  

According to Pau-Llosa, this vanished Arcadia will never be equaled, certainly not by the current crop of Cuban exiles. "Cuban civilization did not have to die," he writes in an essay he contributed to a forthcoming book, Re-Membering Cuba. "It could have survived in the passion and memory of its exiles....But that has not been the case....Nowhere is the death of this once great nation more painfully evident than when talking to young Cuban-Americans in Miami." They are affluent beyond their parents' dreams, but they also suffer from "an impenetrable philistinism," he asserts. For Pau-Llosa, only by immersing themselves in the sense of bitter loss, only by constantly rendering homage to the music and art of pre-1959 Cuba can Miami's exiles find cultural salvation. And to his lament, so few of them even try.  

Pop singer Jon Secada is the sort of new Cuban-American cultural icon that Pau-Llosa most abhors: a musician who feels a greater cultural debt to Miami than to Havana. Secada was born in Cuba 37 years ago. His father was sent to a prison farm for 18 months for requesting to emigrate. After he and his family were finally allowed to leave Havana in 1971, they set up house in Hialeah and opened a coffee shop in Miami Beach.  

Jon Secada has vivid memories of his aunt, Moraima Secada, a famous singer in Cuba. "But I grew up listening to all sorts of music--pop, rock, rhythm and blues," says Secada, who has a boyish face, a waiflike build, and a disposition as sweet and earnest as his songs. "I'm what Miami is all about--a fusion of cultures and sounds."   He got his first big break when he was hired as a backup singer for Gloria Estefan and other performers under contract to her husband, Emilio Estefan, Miami's preeminent music impresario. Soon, Secada became a star in his own right. His album, Otro Día Mas Sin Verte/Just Another Day, won a Grammy as the best Latin pop record in 1992, and he was awarded another Grammy three years later. His romantic, Anglo-Latino sound has sold well over 6 million albums worldwide.  

With their guy at the top of his game, his handlers aren't about to risk any slippage. So, I'm cleared for a meeting with Secada only after I agree to steer away from politics and, most especially, not elicit any opinions on Cuba. The interview takes place near Coconut Grove at an Estefan-owned studio where Secada is recording his next album. Secada waxes eloquent about Miami.  

"This city is by far the most important center for Latin American music," he gushes. "Every major artist passes through. There was a time when Miami was dominated by Cuban music, but no more. I consider myself a Cuban-African-American, a product of the Cuban community here, with an American perspective. But I've made the transition beyond the Cuban audience. To tell you the truth, I'm more aware of what's coming out of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic than Cuba."  

Since he's broached the subject of Cuban music, I figure it won't hurt to ask about the Buena Vista Social Club. The Havana-based group, composed of rediscovered legendary performers of Cuban music, has had a hit movie, packed concerts in American cities (with the glaring exception of Miami), and won a Grammy in 1997 for its nostalgic Cuban roots music, much in the style of Secada's beloved Aunt Moraima. But when I ask him, Secada's ebullience vanishes. "I just don't know anything about them," he replies, looking at his hands. But surely, he's heard their albums? "Uh, no...." Somehow, the notion that a two-time Latin Grammy winner might be unaware of another Latin Grammy winner--a group from his native Cuba that has become a cross-cultural phenomenon--strains credulity.  

Secada's reticence doesn't surprise Debbie Ohanian, owner of Starfish, a popular Miami Beach nightclub. "There isn't much support in the exile community for Cuban musicians, even the legendary ones who moved over here," says Ohanian, a flamboyantly attractive Armenian-American. "The music they grew up with becomes taboo. They not only hate Fidel. They hate everybody who chooses to stay on the island."  

Ohanian, who relishes controversy, has managed to channel this hatred into profits by bringing Cuban musicians to Miami. Last year, she helped promote a concert here by Los Van Van, which takes its name from an old Communist slogan and remains one of Castro's favorite groups. Radio commentators railed against her, and her nightclub was picketed.   "I became public enemy numero uno in this town," says Ohanian, who turned the adverse publicity to her advantage. When an exile group threatened to take videos of people attending the Los Van Van concert, she encouraged ticket-holders to show up wearing masks of Miami Mayor Joe Carollo and other well-known anti-Castro hard-liners.  

Painting, like music, gets grossly refracted through Miami's ideological prism. For much of the exile community, there can be no separation between politics and art: a painter who remains in Cuba is a Castro agent, and cannot be considered on his artistic merits alone. Nothing illustrates the consequences of this bias more than the wretched destiny of the Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture, the only institution of its kind ever created in Miami.  

In 1988, the then-young, struggling museum held a fund-raising auction of works by Cubans, including a few "official" artists, as those living in Cuba are called. The reaction among anti-Castro exiles was explosive. Daily demonstrations were held in front of the museum. A group of protestors bought a painting by Manuel Mendive--an official Cuban artist--and proceeded to burn it publicly. Later, a bomb seriously damaged the museum, and another went off under the car of a museum official (no one was injured).  

The protests continued for several years. The Miami city government attempted to evict the museum from its premises, prompting the museum to sue on the grounds that its First Amendment rights were being violated. It won its case in United States District Court. But the bruising struggles frightened away donors and visitors and eventually bankrupted the museum. Last year, the museum and its collection of nearly 500 Cuban paintings and sculptures became part of the University of Miami's Lowe Art Museum.  

"It was the most viable alternative," says Ramón Cernuda, who as a director of the Cuban Museum backed the controversial fund-raising auction. Cernuda, a successful publisher, and his wife, Nercys Ganem, have amassed what is arguably the best collection of Cuban art outside of the National Museum in Havana. Their first acquisitions date from their flight from Cuba in 1960. Now expanded to more than three hundred works, their collection is entirely devoted to twentieth-century Cuban artists.  

The cool white walls of the Cernuda apartment, high above the Miami oceanfront, are a perfect backdrop for the intensely tropical colors of the paintings. Though most of the works precede the Castro regime, some are by more recent artists who have aroused the ire of the exile community. There is a painting of a fish bowl that once hung in New York's Museum of Modern Art by Mariano Rodríguez, whose enthusiasm for Castro led him to denounce fellow artists who failed to demonstrate sufficient revolutionary fervor. There is also a hyperrealist tropical landscape by Tomás Sánchez.  

"When we included him in an exhibition at the Cuban Museum, we were accused of collaborating with the enemy, because he was living in Cuba," says Cernuda, a slim 53-year-old with a shock of prematurely white hair. "Three months later the guy seeks asylum, moves to Miami, and now they love him."  

Cernuda walks me over to several paintings by Mendive, the artist whose work was burned during the museum protests. "Last year, he was invited to Miami for a one-man show at a private gallery, and nothing happened," says Cernuda. "So, maybe we're getting a bit more tolerant in a cultural sense."  

I leave Cernuda and head to Havana Harry's for a dinner of deep-fried pork, black beans and rice with a Cuban exile friend who is a leading art critic. As I wax poetic about the artists I have just discovered, I notice my friend's face turning sour. "I haven't seen the Cernuda collection," he says. "Visiting those people's apartment would make me puke." He cannot forgive Cernuda for his role in the Cuban Museum controversy, or for collecting official Cuban artists. As an art critic, he is prepared to acknowledge that the Cernudas may own an unrivaled private collection of Cuban art. But as a virulent anti-Castrista, he cannot appreciate the art outside of its political context.  

If the artists and politicians aren't willing to pull Miami's exiles out of their quagmire of anger and self-pity, where then will the initiative for change come from? There is a bare glimmer of hope among elements in the Cuban-American business community. It was a small faction of business leaders who worked behind the scenes to try to reach an agreement on Elián González with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. Even though the attempt ended in a fiasco from their point of view, Cuban-American business executives will no doubt offer themselves again as voices of reason, arguing that Miami's image as a burgeoning global economic hub will suffer as long as the extreme passions sparked by the Elián affair are fanned by local politicians.  

For some time now, an increasingly large business constituency has felt that the total fixation of politics on a hard-line anti-Castro platform has allowed corruption and inefficient bureaucracy to flourish in Miami and dimmed the city's growth prospects. A partial list of convictions over the last decade compiled by the Miami Herald includes two mayors, a city manager, two city commissioners, a county commissioner, a city finance manager, three judges and one lobbyist. More than a dozen other officials and contractors await trial on bribery and embezzlement charges. During my stay, another Herald front-page exposé details an airport cleanup contract handed over without bidding to an inexperienced firm.  

Two years ago, the Mesa Redonda, a Hispanic leadership club of mostly Cuban-American businessmen, hosted an anticorruption meeting of various civic groups that led to the creation of the Alliance for Ethical Government, aimed at coming up with proposals to reduce bribery, embezzlement, fraud and other crimes by public officials.  

The leading force behind these initiatives is Carlos Saladrigas, a 51-year-old businessman. Saladrigas built his employee service company, the Vincam Group, into the largest Latino-owned business in the United States, with annual revenues approaching a billion dollars. He sold it last year, but remains active in the merged company. He led the negotiations to save the Cuban Museum by turning it over to the University of Miami. More recently, he has devoted a good chunk of his time to the Alliance for Ethical Government.  

"We, as a community, have failed to put forth our best and brightest in public office," says Saladrigas, in his office, rubbing cream on hands bruised by a struggle to land a marlin during a weekend fishing trip. "When I was growing up in Cuba, I remember the phrase, 'Decent people don't get involved in politics.' Maybe there's still that same mindset here."   Saladrigas and his alliance colleagues suggest that one way to encourage better candidates for office is to raise the salaries of public officials. "I don't think paying more to a crook is going to turn him into a decent person," says Saladrigas. "But at least, it might permit an honest politician to live on his official income. We've got county commissioners who officially make as little as $6,000 a year." The alliance is also urging that all government contracts be put up for public bidding and that professional managers--instead of politicians--be assigned to oversee public projects.  

"As long as people think that the crooks in city hall are going to walk away with the money, they won't vote for any more taxes," says Saladrigas. "That prevents us from investing in the infrastructure our community needs. And it hurts our appeal to national and international companies, who are already loath to relocate here because of the perception that our local government is so corrupt."  

Even before I can ask, Saladrigas offers the connection between a reformed Miami and a post-Castro Cuba. "We need to promote a new vision for Cuba in the twenty-first century," he says. "Castro is still very much the present, but he is irrelevant to the future. Miami should become the intellectual center to craft a new vision for Cubans in Cuba. There has to be more communication between our people here and over there. I'm not saying the economic embargo should be lifted, except maybe for food and medicine. But I think that our local laws that ban cultural exchanges with Cuba should be rescinded. We don't have to be afraid of ideas--Castro does."  

Gonzalo Valdes-Fauli, the 53-year-old group chief executive officer for Latin America Barclays Bank, is another outspoken Cuban-American businessman. "Our politicians are just blinded by the Cuban issue, and it's unfortunate because there is so much for them to do in Miami," he says. "I think it's about time our local government started representing all members of this city." He goes further than Saladrigas on the embargo, urging that it be lifted entirely. "I think Castro is a dehumanizing criminal," says Valdes-Fauli. "But the embargo hasn't worked for [38] years, and it only hurts ordinary Cubans."  

The Valdes-Faulis are among the more prominent Cuban families in Miami. One of Gonzalo's brothers is the mayor of Coral Gables, and another brother and a sister are bank presidents. Gonzalo Valdes-Fauli sits on the boards of the University of Miami and Knight-Ridder, the newspaper chain that owns the Miami Herald. And the family--including generations of lawyers and landowners--was even more distinguished in Cuba, where the first members arrived from Spain more than four centuries ago.  

So, it created quite a stir when the whole clan--the elderly father, Raul Valdes-Fauli, and his children and grandchildren--traveled to Cuba last year for the first time since the older family members fled four decades ago. "I would encourage all Cubans to visit Cuba," says Gonzalo Valdes-Fauli. "I think it's important to know one's heritage, where one came from. And also to know it's time to move on, to get on with our lives over here."  

He then hands me a letter that his daughter, Alexandra, 24, wrote after the trip and which reads in part:   One day I shall walk those same streets with my children and say, 'This is where your great grandparents were married; this was your great grandfather's office; and these are some of the stories he told me when we walked down these streets many years ago....I now understand why my grandfather chose to leave and never look back...By moving to the United States...he gave us the gift of freedom. By taking us to Cuba he has also given us a gift. He gave our Cuban roots context. I understand the longing felt by so many and I cry, not for what Cuba was, but for what Cuba is. How do I thank the man who has shown me what it means to be Cuban and what it means to be American?   Sometimes, from the mouths of babes...  

Jonathan Kandell, a former New York Times correspondent in Latin America, is a freelance journalist based in New York.


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