Cuba After Fidel - The Waiting game
By Simon Kuper and Pamela Druckerman
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: January 20 2007 02:00 | Last updated: January 20 2007 02:00
Andy Gomez left Cuba at the age of five, in 1961, three days before the Bay of Pigs invasion that failed to unseat Fidel Castro. Like many of the 700,000 Cubans in Miami-Dade county, Gomez still speaks English with a Cuban accent, and like most of them he has prospered in the US. He earned degrees from Harvard, raised children, grew a distinguished moustache, and became the University of Miami's foremost expert on Cuba.
His office is housed in the Casa Bacardi, a building sponsored by the Cuban rum family, on the university's sunny campus. In one corridor hang photographs of the family home in Havana, taken by Gomez on a working visit to Cuba. You can see sewage running on the street outside. "If my parents saw it they would be really disappointed," says Gomez.
The house is now inhabited by a government official's family, but Gomez's father still keeps the deed in a safe in his bedroom in Miami. That was the dream of exiled Cubans - el exilio - here: to reclaim lost Havana. But Gomez says it will never happen. "Dad turns 80. It's very sad. My brother and I were talking about the deed yesterday. What is it worth? Nothing."
While Fidel Castro, also recently 80, is ailing or dying, the exiles are giving up their old dreams. Most know they will never again live on the island 90 miles across the Florida straits, not even if it goes democratic after Castro's death.
The traditional image of the exile - an angry former plutocrat, armed, and obsessed with Fidel - is out of date. Most exiles now accept that their decades of fist-waving at Castro - the Bay of Pigs, countless attempts to assassinate him, the American economic embargo - achieved nothing. Before illness forced Castro to hand over to his brother Raul last July, he had become the world's longest-lasting leader. "No Fidel, no problem," bumper stickers in Miami once said, but most exiles now realise that Cuban communism might outlive him.
The leaders of Miami's exiles, on the other hand, still see his impending death as an opportunity, but as one they must not bungle. "There might be a temporary window of opportunity to get it right," says the Cuba Study Group, a collection of Cuban-American business moguls. Francisco "Pepe" Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, says, sitting below a map of Cuba in his Miami office: "The countdown for reform in Cuba starts exactly the day Castro dies. From then it will be months, perhaps a year, a year and a half, but we do not believe it will be years."
In the crucial year 2007, Cuban-Americans are trying a new tack. While Cuba awaits a revolution, Cuban Miami is experiencing one of its own. Many people here want to loosen the US's embargo against Cuba, talk to Raul Castro and start persuading the regime to reform. Unlike hardliners before them, they want to do whatever they must to free the island at last.
I think a man should not live beyond the age when he begins to deteriorate, when the flame that lighted the brightest moment of his life has weakened," wrote Castro in a Cuban prison cell in 1953. He was first reported dead in 1956, supposedly killed by troops of Cuba's US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. Ever since he seized power, rumours of his death have periodically buzzed around Miami. "Time and again the Cuban leader was said to be suffering from a galloping inoperable cancer," wrote the Miami author and columnist Carl Hiaasen in 1998. Now even John Negroponte, the US's deputy secretary of state nominee, publicly predicts Castro will die in 2007. Cuban Miami is ready. One warm December afternoon in "Calle Ocho", the main drag in the neighbourhood known as Little Havana, where many Cubans lived on coming to Miami and some remain, a grocer shows off an empty room he has rented to CBS News; the moment Castro officially dies, a crew will fly here to film the celebrations.
When Castro overthrew Batista, Miami was the obvious haven for his opponents. Fifty-five minutes by plane from Havana, it was practically its twin city, with the same climate, flora and fauna. Before Castro, rich Cubans holidayed on Miami Beach - sometimes accompanied by personal shoppers - while Miamians loved Havana nightclubs. Ex-presidents of Cuba died in exile in Miami long before Castro's ascent.
Nor was the link merely one of merriment. It was on a visit to Miami in 1955 that Castro persuaded the ousted Cuban president Carlos Prio Socarras to fund his rebellion against Batista. Castro used the money to buy the yacht Granma, on which he, his brother Raul, Che Guevara and 79 others landed in Cuba's Oriente province, on the east coast of the 745-mile long island, in 1956. Few Miamians noticed. The city was then such a sleepy, provincial, Anglo town that Batista's fall in Havana in 1959 did not make the front page of the Miami Herald.
The first Cubans to flee after Castro seized power were mostly rich, white professionals and business people. Many had worked for Batista's regime, or owned or managed companies or land that Castro nationalised. Unlike most immigrants in American history, the 220,000 Cubans who came to Miami between 1959 and 1962 were not poor, huddled masses. Some even managed to take their money with them.
But they did have to start afresh in a foreign language and an American backwater. "Havana was three times Miami then," recalls Guillermina Hernandez, a pretty, elderly woman making orange juice in the grocery store owned by her son - CBS News's landlord. "There were no malls here. You had to go downtown to buy anything." She says it in Spanish: in 45 years here she has never acquired English.
Early days were tough. "Men who had been bank presidents in Havana had eked out livings as bookkeepers then," writes David Rieff in The Exile: Cuba in the Heart of Miami, "and talented doctors and lawyers had swept up in fast-food restaurants." But most exiles made good. Carlos Saladrigas was sent to Miami by his parents as a 12-year-old, with $3 in cash. Now he sits in an office above the bank he co-founded, a rich entrepreneur and chairman of the Cuba Study Group.
It's a common story among the early exiles, known as los historicos. Most eventually prospered in Miami. However, says Rieff, many families never forgave Castro the early humiliation of their patriarchs, mighty men in Havana who would sit jobless in poky Miami homes. Prio Socarras forever rued having financed Castro, and after some financial setbacks committed suicide in Miami Beach in 1977.
Furthermore, the exiles could never forget the ease of life for the wealthy in pre-revolutionary Havana. In their minds the lost city became like a Bacardi advertisement: 1950s Cadillacs, beautiful women in linen dresses, men in white suits, long drinks in colonial hotels. It was as if Fidel had exiled them from paradise, writes Rieff. Although many of their families had immigrated to Cuba from Spain in the early 1900s - as Castro's father had - and had thus spent barely 50 years on the island before being exiled, Cuban nationalism was their creed. "I was raised by Puerto Ricans and Cubans," says the comedian Angel Salazar one night at the Miami Improv theatre. "Half the people talked about the stuff they don't have, half the people talked about the stuff they used to have."
As the exiles made money, they also made Miami. By 1978, when Cuban-Americans had become the richest Hispanic group in the US, they owned more companies in Miami than the total number of companies that existed in the city in 1959. The Miami they built was a sort of tribute to old Havana. Just as pre-revolutionary Cuba used to reproduce American landmarks like Coney Island, many Cuban landmarks were later rebuilt in Miami. Schools, funeral homes and restaurants crossed the straits from Cuba with their names and sometimes their personnel intact. In Miami supermarkets you can buy Cuban beer and condensed milk that haven't been sold on the island for decades. At Cuban coffee windows all over town people drink the cafe cubano that is almost unavailable in Havana now. Miami and Havana have swapped places: Miami has old Havana's glitzy nightlife, plus more money and air conditioning than Havana ever had.
The Cubans made Miami bilingual, and probably the richest city in the Spanish-speaking world. That lured immigrants from other Latin American countries. Miami became the "gateway to Latin America".
Though they prospered, Miami Cubans remained much more political than other Americans. The early exiles, encouraged by the CIA, took a hard line on Cuba. Their intransigence became part of their identity, what it meant to be Cuban-American. In Miami in the 1960s and 1970s, people were blown up with car bombs just for advocating dialogue with Castro. In 48 hours in December 1975, 13 bombs exploded in the city. But the worst atrocity came in October 1976: the bombing of a Cuban plane over Barbados, killing all 73 people on board.
This terrorism alienated many Americans from the Miami Cuban cause, particularly after Miami leaders refused to condemn - or even protected - suspects in the bombings of the plane. In the US, Cuban-Americans have often been viewed as zealots with political influence that far exceeds their size. Human Rights Watch issued a report in 1994 saying that in public discussions about Cuba in Miami, "only a narrow range of speech is acceptable, and views that go beyond these boundaries may be dangerous to the speaker". But the Miami Cubans' biggest public relations debacle was then still to come: the case of the five-year-old Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez in 1999.
The exiles long sought an invasion of Cuba, a second Bay of Pigs. They demonstrated in Miami to chants of "War! War! War!" But the US never complied. Perhaps Washington preferred Cuba as a sealed Castroite fiefdom than as a free island leaking poor people to the US. The Mariel boatlift of 1980 was an awful warning of what could come: Castro let disaffected Cubans cross the straits, and sent prisoners and mental patients with them. A fifth of the 125,000 Marielitos who entered the US had criminal records. The chaos helped discredit Jimmy Carter, as no US president has forgotten. Bill Clinton lost re-election as governor of Arkansas after Marielitos rioted in a local prison. Under Clinton's presidency, refugees were returned to Cuba if their boats - or rafts, or inner tyres, or surfboards - were intercepted in the straits. Before the Guantanamo Bay naval base became a Muslim gulag, the US interned Cuban refugees there.
On Cuban policy, the exiles achieved little more than the economic embargo. But they had energy left over to shape American politics, almost always on the Republican anti-communist right. Cuban- Americans became Miami's political establishment. "We've got two senators, four people in the House of Representatives, and the secretary of commerce," boasts Pepe Hernandez of the Cuban American National Foundation. "And all are people that have been very close to the foundation."
He might have added that senator Mel Martinez has been nominated to chair the Republican National Committee - because Cuban political influence goes way beyond Florida. Of the five burglars caught in the Democratic National Committee's offices in the Watergate building in 1972, three were Cuban-Americans, while a fourth, the American Frank Sturgis, had served in Castro's revolutionary army before later turning against Castro and training Cuban exiles for the Bay of Pigs. Later, Cuban-Americans helped to smuggle arms to the Nicaraguan Contras. In 2000, they became probably the group most responsible for sending George W. Bush to the White House. In Florida, the crucial state where Bush's margin of victory was just 537 votes, they gave him 250,000 more votes than they gave Al Gore. Moreover, Cuban-American demonstrators in Miami-Dade intimidated electoral officials into abandoning the recount. It was the latest of many favours they had done the Bush family. The elder George Bush could always count on the Cuban vote. His son Jeb moved to Miami at the start of the 1980s, was given a job by the Cuban- American developer Armando Codina, and soon had a 40 per cent stake in the Codina Bush Group. As governor of Florida and brother of the president, Jeb is close to Miami's main Cuban leaders.
All this has encouraged the impression that all Cuban-Americans are hardline right-wingers. That was never true. In the 1980s, several founders of the Cuban Communist Party who had quarreled with Fidel were discovered living in Hialeah, the mostly Cuban enclave outside Miami. And the Cubans who have come here since 1980 are rarely political at all. Gomez says, "They are mostly if not all economic refugees."
These later arrivals now account for a majority of Cubans here. Cuban Miami is now a very diverse "community" that even includes several close relatives of Fidel himself: his sister Juanita, two of his daughters and their children. Most of the family work quietly in mundane Miami jobs.
The later arrivals are often overlooked. Television reports on Cuban Miami traditionally take in Versailles, a 1950s-style Cuban restaurant on Calle Ocho, itself the imitation of an old restaurant on the island. Every time Castro is rumoured to be dead, historicos wearing the guayabera shirts popular in pre-revolutionary Cuba are interviewed outside Versailles's coffee-window. But these old men are no longer representative: the exiles who arrived before 1980 now account for perhaps a third of Miami Cubans. Versailles might die with its customers.
More typical of Cuban Miami today is the coffee-shop El Louvre, in a strip-mall in Hialeah, where a young blonde woman who left Cuba three months ago serves traditional Cuban milkshakes. Outside, her colleague Isabel Lage takes a cigarette break. "I love everything in the US," she says in Spanish. "In Cuba I had nothing."
The 20,000 or so Cubans who manage to cross the straits each year tend to be much poorer than the historicos. Most head not for wealthy Coral Gables, where many early exiles live, but for drab Hialeah. More than 90 per cent of Hialeah's inhabitants speak Spanish at home, the highest proportion in any American city with more than 100,000 residents. Specifically, they speak Cuban Spanish: kids use Cuban expressions such as "¨Que vuelta?" or "¨Que bola?", rather than "¨Que pasa?", for "What's up?"
Raul Fernandez is a fairly typical Hialeah Cuban. He arrived 20 years ago, at 17, from "one of the lowest-class neighbourhoods in Havana", and for his first 11 years in Florida worked seven days a week in two jobs. Now a building inspector, he lives with his Honduran wife and American daughter in a spotless bungalow with a garden and two cars in front. "I never dreamed of having all the things I have right now, like computers or TV or air conditioning," he says. "I can say that I live in the American dream."
Fernandez and his friends in Miami don't share the early exiles' "dream of return" to Cuba, because they don't feel they lost a paradise. The Cuba they knew was Castro's Cuba. They are more likely to call themselves "Americans" - or "americanos" - than "exiles". Many of them, like Fernandez, have married non-Cubans.
The exiles' children are nostalgic not for old Havana but for Miami's "Little Havana" as it was before the Nicaraguans came. And in Florida International University's "Cuban poll" this March, only 22 per cent of Miami Cubans named Cuba as their most important political issue, well below Iraq and the "war on terror". "If you had asked this last question five years ago, the answer would have been Cuba for the majority," says Jessica Lavariega Monforti, one of the poll's researchers.
Yet the early exiles, in spite of their small numbers, still dominate Miami Cuban politics. That is because they are much more likely than the newcomers to be American citizens, and because 90 per cent of them vote (compared with little more than half America's overall population). They kept Cuban-American politics hardline for decades. When little Elian Gonzalez was picked up floating on an inner tube off the coast of Florida in 1999, after a shipwreck that killed his mother and 10 others, Miami Cubans insisted that he should stay in the US rather than be returned to his father in Cuba. Gonzalez spent five months in the home of his relatives in Miami's Little Havana while courts argued over what should be done. Miami Cubans formed a human chain around the house to stop immigration agents taking him away, and some local officials refused to co-operate with the federal government. Eventually, armed federal agents broke into the house to return the boy to Cuba.
But the affair - for a while the biggest news story in the US - hurt the image of Miami Cubans in the US. Most Americans said in polls that Elian should be sent to his father, and there was little sympathy for Miami officials fighting the federal government over their own ethnic cause. Even some Miami Cubans were upset by the kneejerk hardline reaction of their leaders.
Perhaps it was then that el exilio first began to rethink its politics. But the shift only became visible very recently, and quite suddenly. In the last month of 2006, many changes came at once. In Cuba, Castro missed his own eightieth birthday party, and his brother called for negotiations with the US. In Miami, 20 Cuban-American organisations, united as Consenso Cubano, petitioned Washington to ease some restrictions on travel and on sending money and aid to the island. Their wish may be granted this year. Later in December, 10 members of Congress, the largest congressional delegation to visit Cuba since 1959, spent a weekend in Havana talking to communist leaders. Few in Miami objected. Pepe Hernandez, who heads the Cuban-American National Foundation, which was once famously hardline, says the delegation's visit did not upset him "at all": "I think it's a good time to provide some sense."
Most Miami Cubans now favour talk over violence. This is quite a shift from the days when dialogo was a dirty word in Miami. A bumper sticker here in the early 1990s read, "The Only Dialogue We Want With Castro: Do You Want a Blindfold, Yes Or No?" Saladrigas never thought he would find himself calling for dialogue. "I come from the hardline," he explains in his office above his bank. When the archdiocese of Miami wanted to send a cruise liner full of pilgrims to Cuba for the Pope's visit there in 1998, Saladrigas was "the leading responsible person" for preventing it. He says, "I regret that deeply. If you're really smart, after 47 years of banging your head against a brick wall, you see it is not a good idea."
The first page of a new PowerPoint presentation prepared by Saladrigas's Cuba Study Group is frank:
- Our bottom line - lack of results. What have we achieved in 47 years?
- Our negative international and domestic perception and image.
- The lack of international support.
- Our inability to close rank behind significant opportunities for change.
- Splintering of the internal opposition.
- The intolerance and lack of democratic values in many of our own.
The obvious spur for this soul-searching was Raul Castro's smooth ascension to power. "It may be, Fidel dies, long live Raul," says Guillermo Grenier, an expert on Cuba at Florida International University (FIU). That the regime could outlive Fidel should long have been obvious, as other communist governments have survived even deified leaders such as Stalin, Mao and Kim Il-sung. But the exile community had begun to rethink its position even before Castro fell ill. An earlier spur had been America's failure in Iraq. The mission to spread democracy by force had failed there. Why should it work in Cuba, a country with only the briefest history of democracy? "Iraq was a hell of a lesson for us," says Saladrigas. In FIU's poll in March, just a third of Cuban-Americans said they would support a military invasion of Cuba, down from 60 per cent in 2004.
Another lesson came from the world's many other transitions to democracy since the 1970s. On Saladrigas's desk, beside his American passport, is a book in Spanish called The Path to Democracy in Spain, 1931 and 1978. Cuban Miami buzzes with discussion of Belorussia's failure or the Chinese model or the role of Poland's Catholic church. Examples from Russia to Venezuela have taught Miami Cubans that elections don't necessarily create democracies. The Cuba Study Group commissioned a study of post- communist transitions. "Non-violence," says Saladrigas, "has been shown to be the most important element in determining whether the transition is successful or not."
That is a radical thing to say in Miami. Violence has been central to the exile's ideology since the Bay of Pigs. By one estimate Castro has survived 638 assassination attempts - probably more than any other politican in history - featuring every weapon from an exploding cigar to a pen-syringe. A nostalgia for violence still smoulders in Miami. When a freelance cartoonist stormed the newsroom of the city's El Nuevo Herald newspaper with a toy gun in November, complaining that "they laugh at exiles here", local Cuban radio stations sympathised. However, only fringe groups still advocate violence. The day after Consenso Cubano presented its petition, says Saladrigas, "somebody in some hardline Cuban radio station said that anyone who participated in yesterday's press conference was a traitor to the motherland and would be tried in a free Cuba. But who listens to that garbage anymore?"
Saladrigas and Pepe Hernandez want the US to give Raul Castro an incentive to reform. If that means allowing him and his colleagues to seek exile in, say, Venezuela, so be it. Hernandez explains, "If they make elections and they lose, we can make a deal: you can take your families to go wherever you want." The one place Raul presumably wouldn't go is Miami.
Now that the dialogo with Havana has begun, Miami Cubans have a new fear: that Washington will freeze them out of the talks. President Bush doesn't want exiles interfering with Cuba's transition, complains Hernandez. For all the Cuban members of Congress, he says, Cuban-Americans have less influence now than 20 years ago.
Even so, they will inevitably acquire great influence in a changing Cuba. They are much richer than the 11 million islanders put together and, unlike the islanders, are spending time and money planning Cuba's post-Castro future. Once Fidel is dead, communism has fallen and Cuba is just another poor central Caribbean country, the Miami Cubans will be among the few people outside the island paying it much attention.
What Miami Cubans want to happen after Cuba's transition is no longer what they used to want. No longer do they see Cuba as a potential home. Rather, they regard it as a business opportunity.
On a Saturday morning in a French bakery in Coral Gables, three young Cuban-Americans discuss reclaiming the old family home on the island: "As long as we have a deed." However, this sort of talk is becoming rare. Most Miami Cubans understand what reclaiming their lost property would entail: rich American citizens throwing poor Cubans out of the rooms they have inhabited for decades in order to acquire run-down holiday homes. This prospect "scared the shit out of people on the island who might otherwise have been quite sympathetic to them", says Grenier. It also helped the Castros to portray the Miami Cubans as bogeymen. Instead Miami Cubans may ask a future Cuban government to compensate them for their lost homes and businesses. Again, there are foreign models. Most eastern European states have worked out compensation (and sometimes restitution) for at least some of the owners whose property had been confiscated under Nazism or communism.
For most people here, the loss happened too long ago to make much of a fuss over property. Maria Brenteson, who came to Miami as a teenager in 1960, says her family cannot even find the piece of paper on which her father listed the family's former Cuban properties. He died soon after reaching Miami, "a wreck" weighing 80 pounds, says Brenteson. Many of his exiled peers are dead too. "The group from the 1960s is not going to go down there and live under those conditions. I guarantee you that," says Brenteson.
Cuba is no longer the Cuba that the early exiles knew. One thing that has changed is skin colour: almost all the Cubans who left were white. "Always forgotten, and that's a very key factor," says Gomez. "Eighty-six per cent of the Cuban-American community is Caucasian. Sixty-two per cent of Cubans on Cuba are black. These are the guys who were promised the most by the Castro revolution."
The memory of racism is strong on the island. In other ways, too, 48 years of separation have created two Cuban peoples. Leticia Collazo, a beautician who came to Miami as a Marielita, says: "The mentality of the people there is different - even my family. They have no discipline to work. There are no more Cubans. We are Cuban- Americans and they are the Russian Cubans." Collazo sends hundreds of dollars a month to relatives on the island. "Look how funny the exile is," she says. "We are against Castro but we are the ones who support the economy."
If Cuba's regime falls, the flow of migrants is likely to go not from Miami to Cuba but from Cuba to Miami. A drill in December by American authorities to rehearse for Castro's death focused on keeping Cubans out of the country. Gomez says: "We cannot absorb what we estimate in the first year: half a million Cubans in south Florida."
The relationship that most Miami Cubans will want with a free Cuba is one appropriate to the age of globalisation: a place where they can fly in and out, buy holiday homes and do business. For decades they have attended conferences in Miami hotels with titles like "Investment Opportunities in a Post-Castro Cuba". Now that Washington politicians are talking of relaxing the embargo against Cuba, Miami Cubans are more excited than ever.
The embargo is not one law but a grab-bag of prohibitions on trade, investment and travel. There are gaps: already, American farmers can sell agricultural goods to Cuba. Robert Muse, a Washington lawyer specialising in Cuban issues, warns against expecting much change while the Castros and President Bush remain in power. "There will be no rescission of the embargo based on the argument that it hasn't worked for 47 years," he says. "Congress will stolidly pursue for a generation policies that don't work. There is very little appetite in Washington to attack the embargo frontally." Muse expects only "targeted, incremental relaxations of the embargo". President Bush would veto anything broader, he says.
But Thomas Herzfeld, a money manager in Miami, thinks the embargo will be scrapped in 2007 in return for concessions from Cuba. Herzfeld has already registered his "Cuba Fund" for when that moment comes. Other business people in Miami are ready, too. One leader of Cuban exiles, on the phone to a caller from political Washington, tells him: "All of a sudden the corporate community is getting very interested in this. They are saying, 'We don't want to be left out of the game. If we don't get there early, Europe, China, Latin America are going to eat our lunch.'"
Some Miami Cubans aren't even waiting for the end of the embargo. Herzfeld says: "Young Cuban-Americans will tell you off the record they're already doing business there." Grenier explains: "Some rich folks here buy cigar factories in Spain, or leather-goods manufacturers in Spain, and they do business with Cuba. Other folks do it through Venezuela."
Poor as Cuba may be, many in Miami see it as a tasty morsel. Over a game of tennis in suburban Miami, a senior executive in the cruise industry says all cruise lines are waiting for Havana to open. "For Americans, it's like forbidden fruit. We want to see it again." Herzfeld adds that half the cruise industry's revenues come from the Caribbean basin, and that Cuba lies exactly between the eastern and western Caribbean cruises. An even bigger treasure may be buried off Cuba's coasts, where the regime has recently begun drilling for oil.
Every Miami Cuban entrepreneur seems to have plans for the island. Lombardo Perez, a car dealer who left Cuba in 1965, says Ford has already approved him for a future dealership there. That would continue a family tradition: his relatives sold Fords in pre- revolutionary Cuba. At first, Perez admits, he will mostly deal in used cars because Cubans can't afford new ones, but the business will grow.
Perez is 67. Cuba's transition may happen too late for him as it has for so many already. El exilio is dying and becoming a Miami tribe: just another American ethnic group with roots in a messed-up country and Americans for children. Fidel Castro can die knowing that just as he is falling victim to the "biological solution", so is the generation he banished.
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