Miami Vise

Miami Vise

Cuban-American moderates are on the rise, but hard-liners still run the show.


I welcome the opportunity of having anyone assassinate Fidel Castro and any other leader that is oppressing the people.    –GOP Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, of Miami, interviewed in 2006 for the British documentary 638 Ways to Kill Castro

Fidel Castro is dying. Or perhaps he is already dead. That, at least, was the rumor in Little Havana over the past several months, where reports that the health of the comandante en jefe was improving were treated with skepticism.

Premature predictions of Castro’s death have been a mainstay of Miami’s rumor mill since long before last July, when the Cuban government announced that the elder Castro had transferred power temporarily to his younger brother Raul. Cuban-Americans who first heard “news” of Castro’s expiration in elementary school are now receiving their AARP cards. Countless Castro opponents who anticipated Fidel’s death have preceded him to the grave.

The demise of Fidel Castro has been part of the Cuban exile imagination for a long time, as evidenced in such works as León Ichaso’s 1996 film Bitter Sugar, which culminates in an abortive assassination attempt. That is especially the case for early 1960s and ’70s exiles, among them Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and her parents, who consider themselves part of el exilio histórico (el exilio histérico to its critics). Identifying with this exilio histórico signifies a hard-line position as much as time of arrival. Upon hearing of Castro’s serious illness, some of these exiles lamented the possibility that he might die of natural causes rather than being executed. “I would have liked to kill that man to set an example for future generations,” said Orlando Bosch, the man many hold mainly responsible for the terrorist downing of a Cubana Airlines passenger plane in 1976, which killed seventy-three people, to a reporter last August, when asked whether he was “relieved or frustrated” that Castro was seriously ill. “The prospect that he will die in bed really upsets me.”

What is really happening in the exile capital now that Castro no longer wields absolute power in Havana and his death might no longer be just wishful thinking but a real possibility?

After the round of noisy, if lightly attended, celebrations in Miami after the July 31 announcement of Castro’s turnover of power, an eerie calm seems to have settled in. That is largely because an orderly succession in Cuba has already occurred. The popular uprising hoped for by many has not materialized.

“They are depressed. They are in shock,” said Alfredo Durán, a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the former chair of the Florida Democratic Party. Durán, who has long advocated dialogue and an end to the embargo, was kicked out of the Bay of Pigs veterans’ organization for his views. He says that hard-line exiles “never imagined that a transfer of power could take place while Castro is still alive. Now they don’t have the slightest idea what to do.”

Yet it would be wrong to mistake a temporary psychological setback for a definitive defeat or to underestimate the hard-liners’ power, which has never been greater. It is true that the community has never been monolithic and that more recent arrivals and second- and third-generation Cuban-Americans hold more centrist attitudes on such topics as the embargo and travel to the island; but the conclusion many have derived from these facts–that the Cuban-American community is moving toward political moderation–is at best only half right.

The truth is there are two contradictory trends in the US Cuban community: one involving people, the other grounded in power. The people curve indeed arcs toward the center, but it is long and slow. The power curve has been moving swiftly in the opposite direction. The moderates are growing in number, and their voice is louder today than when dissent in Miami was met with bombs. But meanwhile, the hard-liners have been accumulating power and driving US Cuba policy further right, with a major assist from a President who believes in using US power to change regimes and export democracy. While the Cuban-American community as a whole is slowly drifting toward moderation, its hard-line political elite has become entrenched in the most powerful American institutions.

The best case for growing moderation comes from surveys like the one last September of 600 Cubans and Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, conducted by Bendixen & Associates for the New Democrat Network. The poll found, for example, that 77 percent of Cuban-Americans in South Florida prefer a transition to democracy that is “gradual without violence” as opposed to 20 percent who support “fast and violent” change. Some 49 percent favor free travel to Cuba, while 45 percent oppose it.

That latter attitude stands in contradiction to the policy of the Bush Administration, which in response to howls from the hard-liners that Bush was not doing enough about Cuba clamped down on travel to the island just before the 2004 election. Most egregious of all, the new rules included draconian limits on travel by Cuban-Americans to one trip every three years with no humanitarian exceptions. The previous policy, in force during Clinton’s presidency and most of Bush’s first term, allowed a yearly visit and humanitarian exceptions. Bush’s travel policy thus is more hard-line than the views of the Cuban community itself, and no one is hurt more than Cubans in the United States with close relatives on the island.

What explains the persistence of such a pernicious and increasingly unpopular policy? A Florida International University survey of a random sample of 1,000 Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County released April 2 provides the answer. It shows, among other things, just how sharp the divisions are between the old guard, on one hand, and the new arrivals and the second generation, on the other.

The starkest differences are on the crucial issue of the travel ban, arguably the linchpin of the embargo. In the poll, free travel to Cuba is favored by a majority of the Miami Cuban-American population (55 percent), by a larger majority of the second generation (57 percent) and by an overwhelming proportion of those who have arrived from Cuba since 1995 (80 percent). In contrast, only 23 percent of those who arrived between 1959 and 1965 favor free travel.

Generational change and continuing immigration point toward a future of increasing moderation. But the power equation at the moment is another matter.

In the Cuban-American community today, the históricos hold nearly all the positions of power and influence, from political offices to university presidencies to partnerships in major law firms. They own major businesses; control or influence a great deal of the local media, including radio, TV and newspapers; and sit on key civic boards. They are US citizens, they register and they vote. They are responsible for nearly all the community’s campaign contributions. It is their views that count. They are now a demographic minority–but a political majority. Note, for example, these data from the March survey:

Opinion on allowing unrestricted travel to Cuba, by percent:
            Favor  Oppose
Total          55.2  44.8
Registered to vote     42.3  57.7
Not registered to vote   73.9  26.1

The históricos, like the generation who founded the Cuban Revolution, may be losing the long war against biology. For now, though, they–and the rightward-thinking among their children–have been winning the recent battles for power and policy, succeeding not only in preventing a relaxation of the embargo but in making US Cuba policy much harsher than it would otherwise have been, at no small cost to a large sector of their own people.

The most significant obstacles to changing US Cuba policy in South Florida today–what we might call the Miami vise–are not the old warriors like Orlando Bosch. It’s more the likes of Modesto Maidique, president of Florida International University, who on February 28 published a column in El Nuevo Herald opposing any change in current US policy and pledging that the university would work to bring about the “final goal,” meaning regime change in Cuba. In a stinging response in the same publication March 3, Lisandro Pérez, a professor of sociology at the university and the founding director of the Cuban Research Institute, wondered how Maidique could support a policy that causes pain to Cuban families and hampers academic research. The episode highlights both the diversity of thought in the exile community and the asymmetry of power. Today it is possible to air both views in Miami without fear of physical retaliation. But in terms of clout there’s no contest. Maidique is received at the White House and is considered one of the most powerful men in Miami; Pérez is a nationally respected scholar whose influence is confined mainly to the academic sphere.

The roster of Cuban-Americans in Congress is a testament to the growing empowerment of the Cuban-American community in general and of the históricos specifically. In 1988 there were no Cuban-Americans in Congress. Today there are six, including two senators. While there is one senator for every 3 million people in this country, there is one Cuban-American senator for every 750,000 Cuban-Americans! Legislative over-representation is just one sign of the disproportionate power of the Cuban-American community, which has focused that power like a laser on one target: maintaining a hard-line US Cuba policy.

Indeed, while the six Cuban-Americans in Congress are not monolithic in party or ideology–two are liberal Democrats; four are conservative Republicans–they are when it comes to supporting an unyielding Cuba policy. Not surprisingly, they are also all históricos by birth, inheritance or adoption. New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, born here of Cuban parents who immigrated before 1959, might be considered the exception. But Menendez rose to power representing a heavily Cuban-American area of New Jersey, home to many históricos, some extreme hard-liners. On his trips to Miami he is greeted as an honorary histórico and receives tens of thousands of dollars in political contributions.

For nearly two decades, since the founding of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) in 1981 at the start of the Reagan Administration, that organization led the cause of maintaining and even strengthening the embargo, a campaign fueled by abundant contributions and tough lobbying. But the death of CANF founder Jorge Mas Canosa ten years ago left hard-liners bereft of their most effective leader and began CANF’s decline. A second blow was the Elián González affair in 1999-2000–the effort to prevent a little boy from returning to Cuba to live with his father that took on the feel of a religious craze in parts of the Miami Cuban community and became a public relations disaster for hard-liners. It split CANF into warring camps and exposed the broader public, for the first time, to strains of Cuban-American fanaticism with which Miami residents had long been familiar. The outcome–the raid, the legal process and Elián’s return to Cuba–left hard-liners defeated and embittered.

In Washington it appeared as if the hard-liners’ viselike grip on Cuba policy had been broken and that the históricos and their friends in Congress would be overwhelmed by the tide of sentiment running against them. Spearheaded by the bipartisan Cuba Working Group in the House, led by Arizona Republican Jeff Flake and Massachusetts Democrat William Delahunt, both houses of Congress voted two years in a row, in 2002 and 2003, to gut the travel ban. But President Bush saved the hard-liners’ skin by threatening a veto each time. He was helped by Tom DeLay and other Republicans in Congress, who worked furiously using dubious procedural maneuvers to prevent anti-embargo legislation from reaching the President’s desk.

Spared to fight another day, their policies intact, the hard-liners regrouped and mounted a counterattack. Their vehicle this time was the new US-Cuba Democracy PAC, led by Mauricio Claver-Carone, a young Cuban-American graduate of Georgetown Law School. The PAC is fueled by tons of histórico money, most of it from Miami, and has used its dollars extremely effectively on behalf of a relentlessly hard-line agenda. The PAC’s web page reports that the group contributed more than $550,000 to more than 200 federal candidates in the 2005-06 election cycle alone, making the PAC the second-largest Florida contributor to Congressional campaigns during that time. Federal Elections Commission figures confirm the PAC’s fundraising prowess. The Washington-based Latin American Working Group has documented many cases where members of Congress who had earlier voted to ease travel restrictions changed their vote in 2004 after receiving contributions from the PAC.

The resilience and resourcefulness of Cuban-American hardliners show they should not be dismissed prematurely; but they are not invincible. Political winds in the country and in the Cuban community itself are running against them. DeLay is gone. So is Jeb Bush, who as governor of Florida championed the hard-line cause so faithfully that Senator Mel Martinez called him the “first Cuban-American governor.” George W. Bush is a lame duck. The Democrats control Congress. Several new bills have already been introduced to ease aspects of the embargo. Four years in Iraq have shown regime change to be a disastrous policy. The majority of Americans–62 percent according to a recent poll–support re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba.

In the Cuban-American community, the cruel nature of recent travel restrictions has spurred the formation of new organizations to fight for change, including the Cuban-American Commission for Family Rights and the Emergency Network of Cuban-American Scholars and Artists. Dissidents in Cuba have also called for an end to the restrictions on family travel and remittances.

This call was echoed–belatedly–by a coalition of Cuban-American organizations, including the formerly hard-line CANF. This new coalition, known as Consenso Cubano, also includes the Cuba Study Group, an organization of Cuban-American business heavyweights formed after the Elián debacle to provide alternative leadership to CANF.

The Cuba Study Group, probably the most powerful player in Consenso, casts itself as moderate because it calls for ending restrictions on Cuban-American travel, even as it supports continuing the embargo and the broader travel ban. Thus, while the emergence of the Cuba Study Group does reflect divisions in the traditional exile camp, its claim to represent a new, more progressive exile approach rings hollow. Instead, its strategy appears to be fourfold: (a) to give the appearance of maximum moderation in order to avoid being dismissed as extreme, thus retaining the ability to influence Cuba policy in Washington regardless of the party in power; (b) to support travel by Cuban-Americans as a way to attract a different base from that of the históricos, including younger people and more recent immigrants, to have a means for destabilizing the Cuban government and to have a presence on the ground in case of a collapse of the regime; (c) to take the wind out of the sails of broader efforts by liberal groups to end the travel ban and the embargo; and (d) to prevent a normalization of US-Cuba economic and diplomatic relations that could lead to an economic resurgence in Cuba on the Chinese or Vietnamese model, leaving the exiles out of the picture in terms of political influence and economic dominance on the island.

It has often been claimed that US Cuba policy reflects the attitudes of the Cuban-American community. The truth is that current US policy corresponds solely to the views of a rich, entrenched, recalcitrant and demographically dwindling minority of that community.

Because Florida is both rich in Electoral College votes and a swing state, this shrinking minority within a minority has exercised a virtual veto against presidential initiatives for improving US relations with Cuba. The 2000 election showed that 571 votes can turn an election, or at least turn it over to the Supreme Court to do with it what it will.

Yet there is a market in the state, including in the Cuban-American community, for a candidate with the guts to stand up to the hard-liners. Those who espouse a militant line toward Cuba are disliked by many in the state because of their myriad and well-publicized instances of intolerance. The hard-line policy is unpopular with virtually every group in Florida, including business interests and the rapidly increasing non-Cuban Latino population, which already outnumbers the Cubans. It is past time for a national leader with the courage to make the stranglehold of the históricos history.

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