Thursday, February 09, 2006

Miami & Castro locked in bitter embrace

Posted on Thu, Feb. 09, 2006

Passion over Cuba, Castro endures
Miami may be hip, but for Cuban exiles, there's still the Cold War to fight and mixed messages from the Bush administration to decipher.

Two suspected agents for communist Cuba are taken down in Miami.

A local anti-Castro developer gets nabbed on weapons charges.

A Cuban exile militant sneaks into the United States and shakes the American security system.

Welcome to 21st century Miami, trapped in the anachronistic geopolitics of the Cold War. Osama who? Saddam what? Iraq where?

Here, the daily pathos of Cuba remains center stage to many -- just as it was almost a half century ago.

Passion over Cuba may be aging in Miami -- certainly many of the younger Cubans who arrive here prefer to leave politics behind -- but it is no less urgent to thousands of older exiles. The hot topic on Spanish language radio last week was whether Bush had betrayed the Cuban exile community because he failed to mention Cuba in his State of the Union address.

While younger U.S.-born Cuban Americans -- and more recent Cuban immigrants -- are less virulent and more moderate, the viewpoint of older, more conservative exiles still rules, political analyst and Democratic pollster Sergio Bendixen said. ''Until Cuban exiles get their country back and figure out a way to get rid of Castro, nothing else will matter to them,'' Bendixen noted.

''It absolutely is a throwback,'' said Miami historian and Miami Dade College professor Paul George, who leads guided tours through Miami and Little Havana. ``Cuban exiles are still worried about the Castro issue, and they hinge everything around that issue, the existence of Castro. But the rest of the country has long forgotten that this Cold War period ever happened.''

Well, not everyone. The Bush administration still gives Castro his due with harsh Cold War-era rhetoric and toughened travel policies. Hard-line Cuban-American voters who have twice delivered their votes for Bush expect nothing less.

''Miami is as anachronistic and dinosaur-like as Fidel Castro, because we are a response to him,'' said Miami filmmaker Joe Cardona, who has chronicled generations of Cuban exiles in his films. ``And until that issue is resolved, Miami Cubans will continue living in his world.''

Cuba took center stage in major South Florida cases from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Coast Guard, FBI, U.S. Attorney's Office and Florida International University -- just to name a few of the institutions enmeshed in exile dynamics the past year.


''There's a lot of activity,'' said Florida International University professor Dario Moreno, who analyzes Cuban exile politics. ``The truth is that the Cuban community is still very hard line and remains trapped in the Cold War environment because Cuba is still trapped there, too. Cuba is the issue that grabs the public's attention, the media's attention, and the government's attention.''

With Castro still alive, and an American president who has vowed to do all he can to bring democracy to Cuba, the tension sometimes seems to boil over. Among the flash points:

• Cuban exile militant Luis Posada Carriles sneaked into the country and asked for asylum. Considered by Castro to be a terrorist, but by many exiles to be a freedom fighter, Posada remains detained in an immigration facility in El Paso, Texas, awaiting word on if he will be released.

• In November, the FBI arrested Posada's biggest financial supporter, Santiago Alvarez, and Alvarez's employee, Osvaldo Mitat, on weapons charges -- a move that irritated many exile leaders, who claimed that the Bush administration was playing into Castro's hands.

• A month later, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the administration would again convene a Cabinet-level commission to revise U.S. policy on Cuba by May.

• The cry against the controversial ''wet-foot, dry-foot'' Cuban immigration policy reached a fever pitch after the Coast Guard repatriated 15 migrants found on a piling on the old Seven Mile Bridge in January. A Cuban exile activist, angry at the Bush administration, launched a high-profile hunger strike and Cuban-American congressional representatives demanded that the Bush administration review the policy.

• The same day the 15 migrants were repatriated, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI announced the arrests of a professor at Florida International University, Carlos M. Alvarez, and his wife, Elsa Alvarez, who also worked at FIU. They are accused of being unregistered covert agents for Cuba. Their arrest was commended by Cuban exile activists, who claim Miami is full of Cuban spies.

• On Jan. 20, the Treasury Department allowed the Cuban national baseball team to play in the World Baseball Classic, a move strongly criticized by Cuban-American congressional representatives.

• Three days later, the Treasury Department announced one of its biggest crackdowns ever on illegal travel to Cuba, a move applauded by Cuban-American leaders.

• And last week, the Treasury Department disrupted a meeting between Cuban government officials and U.S. oil industry representatives in Mexico City when Treasury called the Sheraton Hotel there and informed executives that they could be sanctioned for violating the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Sheraton evicted the Cubans, angering government officials in Mexico and Cuba. ''More than ever you see the political hopscotching . . . and insincerity [by] some of these local politicians in regards to Cuba,'' Cardona said. ``It's getting a little tougher for them to be consistent.''


Some Bush detractors smell political opportunity in Washington's inconsistencies.

''Most people realize that this administration has done almost nothing to perpetuate the views that many of the people held when they voted for them on Cuba politics,'' said Joe Garcia, a consultant for the New Democrat Network. ``I believe Cuba is about to become a focus again. This is all stuff to gear up for the electoral cycle. The spy case was an attempt to put up some points on the Republican side.''

Manuel Vasquez Portal, a former Cuban dissident journalist and poet now living in Miami, has a different view than older exiles. ''I feel that time is being wasted to litigate personal differences, while the principal goal of democracy in Cuba has been lost at certain times,'' he said.

Democratic pollster Bendixen said exiles by now have realized that the federal government's attempts to squeeze the Castro government and help bring democracy to Cuba have been fruitless, but that doesn't mean they're ready to jump ship and register as Democrats.

''I still remember listening to Cuban radio here in the first years of exile, and I can't tell a big difference between what La Cubanisima was saying back then, and what Radio Mambi is saying today,'' Bendixen said.

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