Miami’s exile community faces changes in Cuba

Miami’s exile community faces changes in Cuba

Topic: Cuban Miami is not what it once was. Today, there are diverse opinions regarding the embargo and real dialogue with Havana. The changes taking place are providing the community with the necessary features for it to play a constructive albeit secondary role in the pending transition in Cuba.

Summary: Throughout the nineties and, above all, in the wake of the crisis surrounding Elián González in 2000, Cuban Miami has been changing: public opinion has become more moderate, as have traditional exile organizations such as the Cuban American National Foundation, and business and civic leaders have begun to speak for themselves. The great majority of exiles reject violence as a form of opposing the Castro regime and accept the guiding role of the opposition on the island. Today, the diaspora is on the front lines of constructive commitment to the Cuban people. The fact that the majority still support the embargo and sympathize with the Republican Party is of less importance for a democratic Cuba than the progressive easing of tension within the Cuban community in Miami.

Analysis: Exile has not been easy for Cubans. When the revolution triumphed in 1959, almost all the people who shortly after went to the U.S. welcomed it with the same passion as the great majority of their compatriots. As the revolutionary government progressively undertook a radical transformation of society, centralization of power and alignment with the Soviet Union, hundreds of thousands of Cubans joined the opposition and acted according to traditional nineteenth-century political thinking: to deal with a dictatorship, it was necessary to rise against the government or to go into exile and return later, weapons in hand. This time, however, the matter was very complex. Although the revolution quickly limited freedoms, its defense of national sovereignty against the U.S. and its defense of social justice for the poor was enthusiastically supported by much of the population. The opposition –those that rose up and those that left– appeared to be in conflict with the popular will expressed in the streets and the countryside of the entire island. Also, their most famous action –the failed Bay of Pigs invasion sponsored by the U.S.– earned them the label of imperial lackeys. Even today, this is used to discredit an exile community clearly in transition and a peaceful opposition that arose on the island in the mid-seventies.

A better understanding of the exile community –both its origins and its development until today– is essential. Although the future of Cuba will be decided in Cuba, the diaspora is an integral albeit secondary part of this future, both because of existing links in the form of remittances, visits and new migratory waves, and also due to the inevitable prominence of relations with the U.S. and the role the exile community will continue to play in these relations. The Cuban transition will bring about a reassessment of the opposition of the 1960s and of the ideals that motivated it, as well as general recognition of the human cost paid to defend them. Although the strongest opposition arose in Cuba, where it was defeated, jailed and executed, its participants have not yet been granted the place they deserve in the history of the period. After internal resistance had been dismantled, the exile community emerged as the headquarters of opposition to the revolutionary government. Agreement with the U.S. weighed heavily on the opposition in both places –though the exiles established much closer ties with Washington–, whereas this was not the case in terms of the revolution’s links to the Soviet Union. The Cold War overshadowed the stance of Cubans on one side, but not on the other. This fact partly explains the passion that has marked the exile community. Not only did they lose, but their ideals, their dead and their imprisoned compatriots have been undervalued by international public opinion. 

Although the exile community in the U.S. today is conservative (i.e. supporting the embargo, but more importantly sympathizing with the Republican Party), it must be kept in mind that most exiles in the early sixties were closer to being social democrats. After all, Cuban politics before 1959 was dominated by center-left parties. This does not mean that if the revolution had not occurred, or if it had followed the path of the reformist ideals that led to the struggle against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, these sympathies would have remained until today. On the contrary, it would have been natural in a non-revolutionary Cuba for a conservative party to emerge, embracing what today we call neo-liberalism.

In fact, one of the unacknowledged achievements of the revolution has been the rise of a sanely conservative Cuban public opinion, though freely expressed only in exile. Until recently, however, this was only half-true: though the defense of freedom and democracy were ideals shared by the traditional opposition, exile –especially in Miami– did not create a climate conducive to free political expression. The desire for unity quieted –one way or another– those who dissented from what was, or what appeared to be, near unanimity. The transition occurring in Cuban Miami (e.g. more than a third now oppose the embargo and a slight majority support raising it partially) could contribute to a change in U.S. policy. However, the easing of tensions among Cuban public opinion in Miami is more important. A democratic Cuba will also require a democratic right. The more open, inclusive and plural that Cuban Miami becomes –albeit the majority support the Republican Party and the embargo– the better it will be for the future of Cuba.

Polarization does not favor shades of gray, and Cuban politics since 1959 have been very polarized for Cuban-related reasons and because of the Cold War. If the revolution required unquestionable loyalty, the same can be said of much of the exile community in its intransigence to the Castro regime. Nonetheless, as hopes of celebrating the next Christmas on the island faded, some exiles began considering the effectiveness of other methods. Throughout the seventies, these currents –open to dialogue with the Cuban government and to a change in U.S. policy– emerged, and the monolithic image of the exile community began to break up.  During the same decade there was also a growing wave of terrorism carried out by certain exiles, not only against Cuban government objectives –the most notorious being the blast on a Cubana de Aviación plane in 1976, causing 73 deaths–, but also against those exiles who rejected intransigence. For traditional exiles, the Carter Administration’s moves towards reconciliation with Havana, the so-called dialogue between the Cuban government and sectors of the exile community which led to the release of 3,600 political prisoners, as well as family reunification visits to Cuba, were an unbearable offense.

As the case may be, starting in the eighties violence was slowly and grudgingly given up as a form of opposition, though it was not rejected on principle by all sectors. The obvious inviability of armed struggle in Cuba encouraged the search for other tactics. Jorge Mas Canosa (1939-1997) and the Cuban American National Foundation (FNCA) opened the doors to a new strategy: the search for political support in the U.S. to maintain the embargo and conceive of new ways of opposing Castro. The creation of Radio Martí in 1985 was their greatest success. The rapid success of the FNCA in the Washington of Ronald Reagan demonstrated to exiles the effectiveness of new paths that were not violent but certainly were contrary to rapprochement with Havana.

At the same time, relations between exiles and dissidents in Cuba were tense. The founding of the Cuban Pro-Human Rights Committee in 1976 initiated the commitment to non-violence on the part of the opposition on the island precisely when terrorism was being employed with the greatest force by exiles. In the late eighties, proposals by dissidents in favor of national dialogue were harshly denounced by much of the exile community, which still considered itself the headquarters of opposition to the Cuban government and distrusted anything that could come of agreements. Exile groups such as Plataforma Democrática, Cambio Cubano and Comité Cubano por la Democracia, which put out feelers for agreements with the Cuban government, were also rejected. In the early nineties, Human Rights Watch issued two reports on the dangers to free speech in Miami, due to coercion and even sporadic violence on the part of the traditional exile community.

The post-Cold War sparked new hopes that the end of the Castro regime was near. And so it seemed, given the collapse of the Cuban economy and, especially, when in August 1994 thousands of people congregated in the Malecón in Havana in open defiance of the authorities. However, despite the loss of its allies, the tightening of the embargo and growing discontent among the population, the regime managed to survive. Though the rhetoric of exile changed little, it began to change in practice. Throughout the past decade, the gap between exiles and islanders, which in 1990 seemed unbreachable, has been partially filled by an overlapping and ever-growing network of communications and contacts, including religious encounters, political links, humanitarian aid and cultural, academic and professional exchanges. Majority support for the embargo has not prevented the diaspora from reaching the forefront of constructive commitment to the people of Cuba today.

In the wake of the crisis surrounding Elián González, the transition in Cuban Miami took flight (It was already underway at the time, though this was not reflected due to the overreaction of exiles regarding the final destination of the boat child.) Two factors explain this. First, this reaction was a political error, since it was quite unlikely that the child could stay in the U.S., given the positions of the father, Washington and Havana. The result was to distract international attention from the lack of democracy in Cuba –where it was focused after the Ibero-American summit that ended in Havana a few days before Elián appeared in Florida– focusing it instead on the “Miami mafia”. Since then, large sectors of the community in exile have done a better job of calibrating their responses to recurrent crises in their relations with the Cuban government. The fact that, for example, the Bush Administration has not cancelled the remittances and family reunification visits after the recent wave of repression in Cuba is due in part to the many diverse responses provided by Cuban Miami, almost all highlighting the importance of maintaining and increasing contacts with Cuban civil society.

The second factor that is fomenting change in Miami is the human factor. First, time has led to generational change, while certain sectors of the traditional exile community have moderated their stances. In 2001, the FNCA split, both for generational reasons and because of differences in programs, and the hard-liners created the Consejo por la Libertad de Cuba. The new FNCA, as well as Hermanos al Rescate, Movimiento Democracia, Directorio Democrático Cubano and other organizations have been moving towards the center. Also, the Elián crisis itself motivated prominent businessmen and Cuban-American civic leaders to step onto the political stage and speak for themselves, for example the Cuba Study Group (CSG) founded in 2001. Some public opinion polls reveal new attitudes in Cuban Miami. A survey sponsored by the Florida International University in 2000 showed 51% in favor of dialogue with Havana. Surveys carried out for the CSG in 2001 and 2002 indicated similar trends: 56% support for national reconciliation and an amnesty for employees of the current government who collaborate in a transition; and 73% support for the Varela Project, despite the fact that the traditional exile community is against this because the project attempts to foment changes in Cuba within the existing constitutional framework. Also, a Miami Herald survey in early 2003 showed 54% support for the FNCA’s willingness to dialogue with the Cuban government (except for Fidel and Raúl Castro) in order to facilitate the transition to democracy. The poor turnout at a march held on March 29 of this year to denounce the “dialogueros” and discredit the surveys served to highlight the plural reality of the exile community. Although the police and organizers claimed that 30-50,000 people marched that day, the real figure was not above 5,400 according to air photos taken with a high-resolution camera.

Conclusions: Although it does not lack active resources, the traditional exile community is losing its control over public opinion in Cuban Miami. Still, the moderate sector is not yet in control. Perhaps the essential value of the recent surveys is that they allow the emerging majority to come to recognize itself. However, in order for public opinion to become effective political power, it must have effective leadership and a new vision. Although both are present, they lack –and probably always will– the cohesion of the FNCA during the eighties and early nineties. The FNCA of those days arose and acted within the parameters of a polarization in the apparently unified exile community. Though it was not their intention, the fact that Mas Canosa and his colleagues directed their energy towards political methods has sowed the seeds of moderation that are now sprouting in Cuban Miami. Politics, after all, requires spaces that war does not tolerate. A broad and diverse political spectrum –one that includes everyone from traditional exiles to the tiny sectors that support the Cuban government– could therefore never be based on the hegemonic structure of the past.

The challenge is precisely to consolidate an “extreme center” to boost civic cohabitation and the ability to forge consensus according to the circumstances, though the commitment to a democratic Cuba remains firm. Cautious optimism is warranted in this regard. In contrast to the seventies, the great majority of exiles today have rejected violence and acknowledge the guiding role of the opposition on the island. Also, although support for the embargo remains, it is diminishing and recognition of its relative ineffectiveness is on the rise. The Cuban transition remains pending and without a time frame, but is a very powerful stimulus for the emerging exile sectors. The more consolidated they become, the better prepared they will be for the inevitable negotiations when the transition actually arrives. Finally, the international reaction to the recent wave of repression –particularly on the part of the European Union and Canada– also encourages the diaspora to moderate its stance. The firmer the international support for a democratic Cuba, the easier it will be for the exile community to point to the way so that U.S. policy really focuses on this common goal.

It is not easy to cast off myths and stereotypes. The imprisonment of 75 peaceful dissidents and the execution of three ordinary citizens have –definitively– erased the last of the sparkle surrounding the Cuban government, the remnants of what the revolution represented in the sixties. Yesterday’s complexities are now history. All that remains today is a dictatorship. Although it is not what it could or ought to be, Cuban Miami is no longer what it used to be either.  The metamorphosis now underway is providing it with the necessary features for playing a constructive role in the pending transition. For all of us who care about Cuba, the revolutionary myth and the stereotypes of exile are breaking down and this is important news.

Marifeli Pérez-Stable

Florida International University

Marifeli Pérez-Stable

Written by Marifeli Pérez-Stable