Florida Becomes Pan Latin America, Not Just Cuba In Exile


"It’s just like Cuba, only with food." The sun has set over Miami and you would think you were in Havana. It is only February but temperatures hover around 20°C. Palm trees grow in the squares beneath the skyscrapers, and the golden arch of a McDonald’s glows nearby. The Cuban who’s talking nods in the direction of stores, their windows full of electrical appliances, furniture, clothing and flat-screen televisions. He guesses that they hold enough to supply everybody in Cuba for a century.

 

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 Miami (which is not in the centre but in the east of the city). People rush home, some with security badges hanging around their necks; nearly all speak Spanish. Soon Latin America‘s Wall Street will be a steel and concrete desert.

 

The elevated railways leave for the distant suburbs, one every 20 minutes when everything goes smoothly, while buses set off on interminable journeys: Miami was made for those who can afford a car. But in the bus everyone knows everyone else and Cuban-Americans banter, with no mention of politics or Castro. This bus isn’t going to Miami Beach, with its translucent ocean and art-deco hotels, but to the working class neighbourhood of Hialeah. There are Cubans in the resort – rich Cubans, too, plus an army of waiters, waitresses and cleaning women, and all those bilingual second-generation Cubans who stop tourists in front of restaurants on Ocean Drive and entice them in. But this bus isn’t heading for Miami Beach, or Little Havana.

 

Little Havana is a myth sustained by journalists. For years this area close to downtown Miami was a Cuban stronghold and bastion of Batista supporters (1), home to big landlords, professionals, managers, and shopkeepers, as well as dealers and traffickers who had fled the revolution. The famous Calle Ocho (Eight Street) hummed in those days, a busy main thoroughfare of stores, restaurants and neon-lit bars, where dubious plots to invade Cuba or assassinate Fidel Castro were hatched.

 

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, Hialeah, Northwest, and Miami-Dade County. They have gradually been replaced by immigrants from Central America and Columbia. Now Calle Ocho has Honduran mini-marts, Nicaraguan bars and Salvadorian restaurants. Little Havana was not reclaimed by norteamericanos. Signs on some shop doors read "We speak English". Cubans are now just the largest minority.

 

Old splendour fades

 

Nothing remains of Little Havana’s former splendour. Just a few anti-Castro exiles playing dominos in Maximo Gomez Park, and the Versailles restaurant, the haunt of the exiled far right. But this is still the neighbourhood where people gather spontaneously after major political events. When the Soviet Union imploded, this was where people cried "Not much longer for Fidel!" During the Balseros crisis (2) it was "One shove and the system will collapse" and when the US took Baghdad, "Today Iraq, tomorrow Cuba". When Castro fell ill, everybody thought it was an opportunity for those who want to change Cuba. Every time, the news cameras come to Little Havana to take the pulse of the community, but only a few thousand demonstrate out of a total population of 650,000 Cubans (3).

 

Nevertheless, the Cuban far right has held Miami since the 1960s, thanks to its economic clout (and the resources the Batistas bought with them), its activism – and generous help from 10 US administrations. Also to the far right’s power over the media, with which it has close links. This includes two Spanish language papers, Diario Las Americas and Nuevo Herald (the Spanish edition of the Miami Herald), six radio stations (including La Poderosa, Radio Mambi, and WQBA), and a local TV station, Canal 41 (4). A Uruguayan told me: "When I arrived in 1982 I listened to Spanish radio and watched Spanish TV. But all their programmes were about one subject: Cuba. That was our daily fare, constant propaganda – nothing to do with news." Nothing has changed since then.

 

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 Miami, you have to get up early and search for it. They are English language papers of little interest to Cubans.

 

"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 Cuba‘s Escambray jungle. When he arrived in Miami he founded a magazine called Replica. Now he has grown more moderate; he preaches dialogue and objects to anti-Cuba violence. "We were bombed 11 times between 1975 and the mid-1980s when the magazine closed down," he told me. Now times have changed and there is not much room for this sort of violent action on US soil. "At least now we can survive. The atmosphere is hostile but direct action has become increasingly difficult," said Leznik, who currently runs Radio Miami. "But that doesn’t mean we feel totally safe."

 

Aruca, who founded a travel agency, Marazul, that charters flights to Cuba, has a show called Radio Progreso on Union Radio. He originally had five hours of airtime, with Cuban music, news, and moderate political analyses, which he had to finance with advertising. "I thought the advertisers would flock and they did. But after four or five days they called to say they were getting death threats on the phone. One man had a cafe, and he told me that someone threw a paving stone though his window." Due to lack of funds, Aruca had to cut his independent news show to one hour and he still has no advertisers (apart from Marazul), despite an audience of 15%.

 

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 Cuba led 25,000 Cubans to leave the port of Mariel and cross the Straits of Florida. The early settlers revelled in Castro’s troubles but did not welcome the poor marielitos. Suddenly Florida was peopled with Cubans who did not belong to the former ruling class or the middle-classes, but came from the street, and were less often white. The trend continued in 1994, with the arrival of the balseros, named after their clumsy craft.

 

After that Miami changed completely, with curious results. As an inhabitant of the Anglo district, Coral Gables, said of the marielitos: "Most of them were good, decent people, but there were also delinquents among them as well as the mentally ill that Castro sent over." Max Leznik explained: "Those people were left behind in Cuban psychiatric hospitals, abandoned to the revolution. The government got hold of the patient list. Where were these people’s relatives, in the States? Then get them out of hospital and send them over there. Their families have the means to take care of them." There was a violent, disorderly period in Miami with murder and drug trafficking, which has since abated (5).

 

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 US. According to the Uruguayan, "they’re the only ones to get their green cards without any problem. All the others live in fear, and spend years here illegally. And if they are discovered they get thrown out and lose everything."

 

‘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 Miami said: "I know what’s not working in Cuba because it’s the same in my country. But they have two important things: Fidel gave them culture and health. I wish we could have those back home." There are plenty of differences of opinion between the Cubans and the rest of the population.

 

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

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