Fight for Elian fueled by rage against Castro; Miami Cuban-Americans have clout, long memories

By Michael D. Sallah and Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writers

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MIAMI — Just before dawn, the ritual begins.

A crowd gathers around a modest bungalow, locks arms, and chants the name of the small boy inside.

The cameras capture the image, and the rest of the world watches as another day begins in the international saga of Elian.

In most places, the debate over the fate of a 6-year-old boy would be left to the courts, but here, it has escalated into a daily media drama.

Few American cities have hosted such crises, but few places are like Miami.

This city on Biscayne Bay has changed more than just about anywhere else in America in the last 40 years. It’s gone from a sunny playground for white northerners – “the sun and fun capital of the world,” as Jackie Gleason used to say – to a symbol of vice, corruption, and excess.

“Paradise lost,” Time magazine declared in the 1980s.

Many changes have occurred, but the most obvious one has been the enormous influx of Cubans since Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959. Passionate about their homeland and strong enough to dictate foreign policy, they are perhaps the most powerful minority enclave in the nation.

Not since the infamous Mariel boat lift 20 years ago has this group so dominated the nation’s attention.

South Florida is home to about 800,000 Cuban-Americans. The ways they’ve transformed the landscape have been put on display by the Elian controversy, which has been left to simmer by a federal court injunction late last week.

Their passionate hatred of the bearded dictator has long dictated American foreign policy toward the island 90 miles off Key West. “The Cold War has ended for the rest of the world, but unfortunately, not for the Cuban people,” said Dr. Uva de Aragon, assistant director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

Now a majority in Miami, most Cuban-Americans are proud, patriotic citizens of their new country. But when it comes to Castro, the rule of law sometimes has become secondary.

Last month, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas stunned Americans when he said that local police would not “assist the federal government in any way, shape, or form to inappropriately repatriate Elian Gonzalez to Cuba.” Mr. Penelas’s comments caused controversy around the country but endeared him to his constituents. A Miami Herald poll last week said that 74 per cent of Miami Cubans agreed with the mayor’s statement.

The same poll showed that one out of three Miami Cubans believed that protesters would be justified in physically stopping federal agents from taking legal custody of Elian.

Statements and poll results such as these don’t help the city of 368,000 fight the perceptions of others, who have called Miami everything from a banana republic to a city in virtual secession.

“You keep hearing in the media about ‘the Cuban-Americans in Miami’ and you see all these people standing in front of a house to keep a father from his son,” said Elena Freyre, executive director of the Cuban Committee for Democracy. “The rest of the country looks at these people and says, ‘Who are these crazy people?'”

Says Dr. Aragon: “Miami had a lot of difficulties with its image. But it’s so easy to judge rather than to try to understand.”


Miami began as a small resort town carved out of the cypress and pine forests of South Florida. Its founders were Ohioans looking to escape snowbound winters: Julia Tuttle and William Brickell from Cleveland and Henry Flagler, a one-time Toledoan who built the railroad connecting the nascent town to the rest of the country.

The ocean breezes and tropical climate were magnets for northerners, first as a winter respite and later as a permanent home. Its population grew from 1,500 in 1900 to 249,000 fifty years later.

A growing array of starlets and entertainers flocked to places such as Hialeah racetrack and the Fountainbleu Hotel. Songs like “Moon Over Miami” hit the airwaves. Hotels sprouted on the beachfront like palm trees.

Instead of leaving every Easter to trudge back north, people began staying. Miami began to buzz year round.

Across the Florida Straits, another city was attracting northerners looking for a good time. Havana, with its grand hotels and casinos, beckoned thousands every year for everything from honeymoons to gambling binges.

That changed in 1959. Castro, then a 33-year-old political idealist, led a revolution against the corrupt Fulgencio Batista, the dictator who had been backed by the U.S. government.

In short order, he seized millions of dollars in American property, from sugar mills to resorts, and committed his new government to the Communist cause.

For wealthy Cubans who had profited under the Batista regime, it was clearly time to leave. Thousands of them fled to the nearest free land, Florida, and began plotting their return.

They thought it would be just a few years. It’s been four decades. Castro has ruled longer than any other world leader.

Since that first wave, more Cubans have found their way to South Florida. Another wave arrived in the late 1960s, and the Mariel boat lift in 1980 – which sent much of Cuba’s prison population across the Straits – brought 125,000 to the Florida shores.

As their numbers grew, the Cuban exiles in Miami became a force in everything from state politics to culture. They built communities, started businesses, and began families. They are easily the wealthiest and most educated of all Latino groups in America. But they’ve never lost sight of the island 90 miles to the south.

“You don’t forget when you have relatives who are suffering over there and you’re told about them every day,” said Mary Reyes, 28, a Miami attorney whose parents were born in Cuba.

Throughout the 20th century, tens of millions of immigrants have arrived in America. For most, one of their biggest goals was to assimilate into American society, eventually discarding their native languages and cultures.

But the Cubans were different, said Dr. Aragon, who left in 1959.

“They always thought they’d go back,” she said. “They didn’t want to forget their language, and they made sure their children learned it. They were not like most immigrants.”


In part because of that attitude toward assimilation, tensions have been high between Miami’s various racial and ethnic groups for decades. Two race riots occurred in the 1980s and a long series of protests ever since.

“Racial animosity never occurs in a vacuum – there is always a history behind it,” wrote Robert Steinback, an African-American columnist for the Miami Herald. “Non-Cubans resent the powerful economic, social, and political machine that Cubans built here – one that virtually excludes them. Cubans, justifiably proud of their achievement, feel little obligation to invite others to the party.”

And as Cubans have grown in power in Miami, many of the city’s whites have moved to more suburban places such as Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

Cubans are now the majority in Miami, and much of the tension has been transferred to infighting within the exile community.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the most powerful figure in the conflict was undoubtedly Jorge Mas Canosa. The son of a Cuban army veterinarian, he fled his homeland in 1960, a year after Castro’s revolution. In Florida, he founded a telecommunications company and became one of the wealthiest Latinos in the nation, with a net worth over $250 million.

His hatred of Castro was legendary, and in 1981, he and a group of other wealthy exiles started the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), which was dedicated to Castro’s overthrow.

The Bay of Pigs veteran, who died in 1997, was known for his fiery speeches and condemnations of pro-Castro Cubans or those whose opposition to the dictator was not strong enough.

Americas Watch, a human rights watchdog group, issued a report in 1994 that said Miami suffered from a “general atmosphere of fear and danger” because of the actions of Mr. Mas Canosa and others who attacked those not strong enough in condemning Castro. The report criticized the U.S. government for helping organizations like the CANF and other “groups that have been closely identified with efforts to restrict freedom of expression.”

Take the case of former Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence, Jr. In the early 1990s, he wrote a series of editorials opposing an effort by CANF to strengthen the embargo. Mr. Mas Canosa fought back. In 1992, he began a campaign against the Herald, distributing thousands of bumper stickers and putting up billboards with the slogan, “I don’t believe the Herald.”

Mr. Lawrence received death threats and was forced to travel with bodyguards. Newspaper vending machines were smeared with feces. In recognition, the Scripps Howard Foundation gave Mr. Lawrence its Service to the First Amendment award.

Through the administrations of President Reagan, President Bush, and now President Clinton, Mr. Mas Canosa was the principal architect of America’s foreign policy toward Cuba. The embargo of the island nation begun by President Eisenhower in 1960 has been strengthened further, and American foreign policy has shown few signs of concessions to its southern neighbor, even as it extends trade with other Communist nations that violate human rights, like China.


Miami has had an image problem ever since the early 1980s. It became a center of international drug trafficking, crime was rampant, and the TV series Miami Vice taught viewers that South Florida was a haven for undesirables.

It didn’t get better in the 1990s, which included a major hurricane in 1992, a rash of tourist murders, and a wave of corruption that has led to the arrests of 35 public officials since 1996, including two county commissioners and three city councilmen.

Mayor Xavier Suarez, a Harvard-educated lawyer, was only in office four months in 1998 before he was removed by a Florida appeals court judge because of voter fraud in his election. He had been “elected” on a platform of bringing the city back from the brink of bankruptcy. Its bonds were rated below junk bonds by Wall Street analysts, and the state of Florida was forced to step in to bring stability to city government.

But among all these troubles, moderate activists have hope that the hard-line anti-Castro position represented by the CANF may be slowly fading.

One of the biggest gaps is generational. For Cubans who arrived in Miami in the 1960s, opposition to Castro is still passionate.

“Don’t underestimate how the older generation feels,” Desiree Calas-Johnson, 26, a native Miamian, said. “You have to understand that they lost everything in Cuba: their homes, their businesses, and their land.”

But those who arrived in the 1980s or 1990s – or who arrived at a young age and have grown up in America – are generally more willing to forge a productive connection between the two countries.

A 1997 poll conducted by Florida International University showed that 52 per cent of Miami Cubans want the government to have a dialogue with the island. But among those who arrived in the 1990s, 75 per cent do.

Cuban Americans born in the United States are more than three times as likely to oppose the embargo as those who came to this country in the early 1960s, the poll said.

Cuban culture has flowered in America in the 1990s. Cuban music especially is increasingly popular; the movie Buena Vista Social Club and its soundtrack album have been enormous hits and drawn attention to the traditional son music of Cuba.

That exposure has helped people see Cuba as a more complex issue, Ms. Freyre said. “Before, people just thought of the crazy man with the beard and some more crazy people in Miami. Now people know more about the culture and the complexity.”

In contrast, Cuban musicians often were prevented from playing in Miami by local officials who said such performances would help Castro gain legitimacy.

Other events have pushed Miami’s Cubans toward moderation, including the 1998 visit to Cuba by Pope John Paul II and the death of Mr. Mas Canosa.

Ms. Freyre leads the Cuban Committee for Democracy, which was formed in 1992 as a moderate alternative to the CANF. She said she has gotten a few threats of violence from hard liners, but “it’s mostly name calling.”

“Miami is the only place that I know of where intransigence is something to be proud of and moderation is something to be ashamed of,” she said.

She estimates that, a few years ago, about 30 per cent of Miami Cubans supported her group’s stance. She thinks that number, while still a minority, is on the rise.

“The people who arrived in the 1960s, they had everything taken away from them,” she said. “They were at the pinnacle of their careers and they had it all taken away. But younger people just want to see it resolved somehow, and they’re not as strident.”

While the furor over Elian Gonzalez has focused all of the pro and anti-Cuba forces into one small 6-year-old boy, the debate will survive long after his case is resolved, which could happen as soon as this week.

Neal Sonnett, a native Miamian and a former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that the Elian episode will be another time for the rest of America to judge his hometown. How the city reacts to whatever happens will go a long way toward determining how the rest of the world views this tense mix of peoples.

“Miami’s an incredible city,” he said. “It’s vibrant, alive, and it’s had a colorful history. I know it’s gone through a lot of different stages, but it will survive this.”