Florida Becomes Pan Latin America, Not Just Cuba In Exile
"It's just like
"It's just like
The metal shutters come down on the stores and you can hear salsa from the Latino fast-food outlets. Businessmen and secretaries and other employees leave downtown
The elevated railways leave for the distant suburbs, one every 20 minutes when everything goes smoothly, while buses set off on interminable journeys:
Cubans started to leave in the mid 1980s and now Little Havana is a dull suburb. The oldest residents died and their children are scattered around Kendall,
Old splendour fades
Nothing remains of Little Havana's former splendour. Just a few anti-Castro exiles playing dominos in
Nevertheless, the Cuban far right has held
The same is true of the press. The Miami Herald soon realised that it was not prudent to be on the wrong side of the Cuban community. Its Spanish language edition lays on the propaganda thickly and sometimes censors articles from the parent paper: it's like more a political pamphlet. If you want a copy of USA Today or The New York Times in
"The role of radio in this city," explained Francisco Aruca, "has always been to toe the line and exert social pressure, especially on any group with different opinions. At one time if you were accused of being a Castro sympathiser on the radio - it didn't matter if it was true or not - and you went to a party that evening, your friends would turn their backs on you. Or else they'd say look, I like you but I don't really want to be seen with you, and all the doors would suddenly close."
No violence now
Max Leznik was so against the direction of the revolution in the 1960s that he took up arms to fight it in
Aruca, who founded a travel agency, Marazul, that charters flights to
The first Cuban exiles were entire families, all white, rich and anti-Castro. Their ranks were boosted by the employees, artisans, teachers and small shopkeepers who followed in subsequent waves of anti-revolutionary sentiment until the 1970s. In 1980 serious difficulties in
The Afro-Americans did not take kindly to the newcomers, who were competition for menial, low-paid jobs. And the South Americans and Haitians look askance at the privileged treatment Cubans still receive from the
'Chávez is a clown'
Cubans, even when they become US nationals, live among other Cubans. "They are elitist, they think they are the best, that they are different. They treat us Latinos as `indies' [indigenous people]," said the Uruguayan. This can result in strange paradoxes. Cubans fled the revolution and criticise it mercilessly, but at a mention of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, they get snobbish and say: "Chávez? He's a clown. Fidel's far more intelligent."
The far right are snobbier still - according to the Uruguayan: "If the Afro-Americans only knew how they talk about them - luckily they don't understand what's on the radio." An Ecuadorian in
The cheeky, cheerful post-Mariel Cubans have put their stamp on Miami. The US government helped them when they arrived, they worked hard and made their mark. The more entrepreneurial became shopkeepers, started small businesses in services, or opened pizzerias. A non-Mariel Cuban said of them: "They criticised Fidel because he didn't let them travel, but now that they are here, they never leave Miami. The outside world doesn't interest them - except for one place: as soon as they get a fortnight's holiday, they go back to Cuba."
Radical anti-Castrists have pet certainties: in another month, or week, or day, the regime will fall. The exiled Cubans will return triumphantly, one will run for president, and win. They trot out the same stories about the forthcoming victory (always deferred). They live entirely in the past. Criminal organisations used to gravitate around them and still do: Alpha 66, Comandos L, Comandos Martianos MRD, Omega 7, the Democratic National Unity Party (PUND), and the Council for the Freedom of Cuba.
The Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF), established by Ronald Reagan in September 1981, has a more respectable political facade, but its methods include bribing politicians and intimidation. Members live grandly and squander fortunes, thanks to the CIA and successive US administrations who generously poured money into these organisations in an attempt to bring down Castro.
At Federal level, the three Cuban-American Republican members of the US House of Representatives have set the tone since the early 1990s: the Diaz-Balart brothers, Lincoln and Mario, and Ileana Ros Lehtinen. They have lobbied zealously in Washington, and are behind every measure for tightening Cuban embargos (6). They have demanded that Fidel Castro be brought before an international court of law (when they are not calling for his assassination) and have requested freedom for anti-Castro terrorist Luis Posada Carriles.
Other things to worry about
Most Cuban-Americans have other things to worry about. They have tried to keep a low profile in the face of these extremists with their violent action and harassment. They just want to be left alone. "Even here they're afraid to talk," said Francisco Aruca, "They don't agree with the dominant majority, but they don't say anything because they want to keep their noses clean."
They came for economic reasons, just like the millions of South Americans from non-communist countries, and want to visit the families they left behind. Even though most of them are far from rich, they want to help. The last thing they want to hear about is embargos or military invasions. Many shops display signs "We send parcels to Cuba". These operations, particularly travel to Cuba, used to be in secret. Now they are perfectly open. One woman on our bus shouted to a friend that she was off to Cuba, and "do you want me to take something for your family?" "When are you leaving?" her friend replied. "I'll get a parcel ready and some letters." It felt just like a guagua (bus) in Havana.
Things became more difficult after 2004. That was the year President George Bush approved the recommendations by the Commission for Assistance for a Free Cuba to tighten the embargo: remittances from Cuban-Americans were limited to $1,200 per year, only to first category relatives; the shipment of packages was restricted; and the number of family visits by Cuban-Americans was reduced from one a year to one every three years, for a maximum of 14 days (7). The amount of money Cuban-Americans may take with them was reduced from $3,000 to $300 and the authorised daily allowance went down from $67 to $50. Luggage is limited to 27kg per person.
Miami was stunned, and then exploded. Even the then-director of CANF, José Garcia, spoke of an error of assessment. People began to say: "I used to vote Republican, but that's it." The Democrats heard the message. Three of the candidates for next November's legislative elections not only intend to win but for the first time have a good chance of doing so. Raul Martinez, the popular long-standing mayor of Hialeah (the largest Cuban neighbourhood) is opposing Lincoln Diaz-Balart, while José Garcia will run against his brother Mario. The Columbian American Annette Taddeo is a likely challenger to Ileana Ros Lehtinen. According to Max Leznik: "Just the fact that the three Republicans actually have an opponent, proves that there is a strong current of popular opinion against the far right, otherwise there would be no point."
But it would be wrong to believe that Miami could or would switch to centre left. Garcia was the trusted adviser of CANF president Jorge Mas Canosa until his death on 23 November 1997. Garcia was also a director of CANF and remains a member (8). But he knows that current policy in Washington is not working.
He does not openly oppose the embargo, any more than the other two Democratic candidates (although Martinez does in private). But, like the others, he favours loosening the restrictions that have cut the links between the Miami Cubans and the island. He also believes that increased contact will favour change in the political system by osmosis. Francisco Aruca says: "If one of the candidates wins, it will be the first blow to the far right in 50 years. If two of them win, they will collapse very quickly. And that will open new perspectives. The atmosphere in Washington will change." ________________________________________________________
(1) The dictator Fulgencio Batista, who was overthrown in the 1959 revolution.
(2) The 1994 exodus of 32,000 Cubans from the island, on makeshift rafts, or balseros.
(3) According to the 2000 census, Miami-Dade County had a population of: 650,000 Cubans or descendents of Cubans; 465,770 white Americans; 427,140 Afro-Americans; and 641,130 Latin Americans from various countries.
(4) Cubans hardly watch the two national Spanish-language TV channels, Univisión and Telemundo, because of the Mexican emphasis (there are many more Mexicans in the US and so they are targeted by advertisers).
(5) Crime resulting from the arrival of marielitos is overshadowed by the serious narco-trafficking by the Cuban mafia, connected with sectors of the Cuban far right.
(6) The Torricelli Act, passed on a proposal by Democrat Robert Torricelli (23 October 1992), and the Helms-Burton Act passed by Republicans Jess Helms and Dan Burton (13 March 1996).
(7) In 2003, 115,000 Cuban exiles visited Cuba.
(8) Following the death of Jorge Mas Canosa, CANF had major upheavals and refocused its activities. The most hardline faction left in 2001 to establish the Cuba Liberty Council.
Translated by Krystyna Horko