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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 5)

"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."  

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