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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.  

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."  

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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