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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 3)

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.  


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