Meet Miami's Cuban moderates

The eruption over Elian Gonzalez is eclipsing a newer, tamer politics emerging in South Florida.

Topics: Immigration,

The eve before Juan Miguel Gonzalez arrived in the United States in an attempt to retrieve his son Elian and take him back to Cuba, television broadcasts showed Cuban exiles in Miami barging through barricades outside the Gonzalez family house, pumping fists, shouting and spouting epithets in Spanish about the Clinton administration. The focus of the cameras was necessarily tight because, in truth, there weren’t many protesters — perhaps 150 out of South Florida’s 800,000 Cubans. But it made for good TV.

What would happen in the coming days, no one knew. Elian’s fate lay squarely in the hands of Washington, where Juan Gonzalez was to make his custody pitch to Janet Reno, and Miami, where the U.S. Attorney’s Office continued its negotiations with the arm of the Gonzalez family holding custody of the 6-year-old.

Miles away, but still in Miami, Alfredo Duran, 63, a former anti-Castro warrior, has no plans to visit the scene or get involved. One would expect a man with Duran’s past to be a participant on the front lines. A veteran of the failed 1961 exile invasion of Cuba, he spent 18 months in Cuban prison after getting captured, and later presided for two terms as president of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association, one of the most aggressive of the Cuban-exile organizations. He has an anti-communist résumé to rival anyone’s in Miami. But Duran is eschewing the barricades.

“The boy should obviously be back with his father,” he says. “But the good thing about this is the whole country is finally focusing on Cuba and the need to change our policies, including, hopefully, an end to the embargo.”

For Cuban-American political activists in Miami, it comes as little surprise that Duran would demur from the position being taken by the hard-line anti-Castro organizations, such as the Cuban American National Foundation. Some 25 years ago, Duran, an attorney, decided the existing strategies against Castro would never succeed. Although still an anti-communist, he began to espouse contacts with the island, not isolation, and especially putting an end to the U.S. economic embargo. He and others who share his position have come to be called “moderates” in this town, where “moderate” is sometimes a bad word.

Given the reputation of Miami’s Cuban-American community for strident political discourse, it may come as a surprise that some people, like Duran, haven’t been burned at the stake in Little Havana for political heresy. Most moderates will tell you that 10 years ago they would have been much more reluctant to speak out. After all, in years past, exiles with the wrong ideas were the targets of bombs. But in the new era of Miami politics, those days have apparently passed.

Like Duran, some of those moderates have escaped direct attack, in part, because of their long and strong credentials as community activists and anti-communists. Also, those interviewed all say they believe many more Cuban exiles now share their sentiments, but are still wary to say so because of the bombastic and often threatening tone of the more militant Cubans.

“I started activity against Castro when I was 13 and still in Cuba,” says Gladys Perez, 53, a banker and a volunteer for Amnesty International. When a communist militiaman came to Perez’s Catholic school and shoved a nun out of the way, Perez fought back, jumping on his back and attacking him. “The officials then ordered the nuns to kick me out of school. Later I joined a secret group that would go out with crayons and write anti-government slogans on walls at night. It was dangerous. Finally, my parents sent me here to this country.”

Perez later became a fire-breathing, anti-Castro activist, hooking up with the agenda-setting Cuban American National Foundation and other exile political organizations. “I demonstrated and picketed. I was very conservative and very intolerant to anyone who didn’t think like me,” she says. “I saw it from the inside. The people who run things in the exile movement are really a very small group.”

Then, in 1997, after becoming disillusioned with the conservative hard-line, Perez decided to visit Cuba. “What I did there was meet with dissidents,” she remembers, speaking of anti-Castro activists on the island. “They sounded much different than I did. They were fighting for democracy but were much more moderate. The foundation had always said that many of these people were Castro agents, but I could see that wasn’t true. I understood that the effort they were making was the one that mattered most.”

Perez told no one of her change in sympathies — at least not at first. “I didn’t come out of the closet immediately,” she says. But she quietly began supporting the dissident cause, helping to raise money and later as a member of Amnesty International to try to draw international attention to the plight of people imprisoned in Cuba for their political beliefs.

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“Eventually, in my old circle I became an outcast,” she says.

At the Ibero-American summit in Havana last November, some of those Cuban activists were able to meet with heads of state and other high officials of some visiting delegations. They received more press coverage than ever before.

But then came Elian, and all the cameras have since been turned on the little boy.

“Every time something good is happening in Cuba, the exile leaders here find a reason to shift the attention away from those dissidents,” Perez argues. “There is no real interest here in creating democratic change in Cuba. These leaders here receive a lot of money from the U.S. government to run different programs, but really all they are doing is promoting themselves.”

Perez believes Elian should be reunited with his father as soon as possible, and that the father should then be able to decide if he should stay in the United States or return to Cuba. The same position is taken by Elly Chovel, who came to the United States when she was 14 as part of the Pedro Pan program. More than 14,000 children were sent to the United States in the early 1960s by parents who were afraid of what the Castro regime would bring. Most of those parents were later allowed to come to the United States and were reunited with their children. Chovel and her younger sister spent almost four years in Buffalo, N.Y., with a foster family before their parents were allowed to come.

Now, Chovel worries about intolerance in the Miami Cuban community. “My parents did what they did so that we would not be indoctrinated in Cuba,” says Chovel, who 10 years ago founded an organization of Pedro Pan kids to help needy children. “That made me extremely conscious of what it is to live in a democracy. To be confronted today by people who have come from Cuba and then don’t defend the First Amendment, that is disturbing to me. What they are trying to do may have validity, but the way they go about it is wrong. They do the cause great harm.”

Chovel, whose first husband was killed as an Army reconnaissance pilot in Vietnam, says Spanish-language radio commentators often make virulent attacks on more moderate Cubans. “Either you do and say exactly as I do or say, or you are a communist. That is the message,” she says.

Cuban-American John de Leon, president of the Greater Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, actively defends the rights of those who insist on saying what they believe. But he wasn’t always so liberal. De Leon’s conversion came at Columbia University, where he went to obtain a master’s degree in international affairs in 1990.

“My views were those of mainstream right-wing exile politics,” de Leon says. “I was strongly in favor of the embargo. Then I took a couple of courses on Cuba at Columbia and it was a different perspective on what was happening there. Also the Berlin Wall was falling, the communist governments in Eastern Europe were in transition, but nothing was happening in Cuba. It was clear that the policies in place weren’t working.”

It was while he was at Columbia that de Leon went to Cuba for the first time to see for himself. It caused a crisis with his parents, who like many conservative exiles refuse to step foot on the island as long as Castro is in power. “It was a tremendous let down to them,” he says. “But I wasn’t going to let Fidel Castro determine if I would see the land of my ancestors. The trip opened a whole Pandora’s box of issues for me. I understood the depth of my parents’ feeling of loss because it is such a beautiful place. But I also still didn’t agree with them on how to get it back. The embargo wasn’t the way.”

While de Leon believes that Elian should be reunited with his father, he also criticizes Reno and the INS for its heavy-handed dealings with the González family in Miami.

“I’m also sensitive about Cubans being seen as a monolith,” he says. “People need to be less one-dimensional in their view of the hardline Cubans. They are easily caricatured as lunatics and they aren’t lunatics at all. Those of us in Miami need to understand where everybody is coming from. We have to stop demonizing each other. It comes from the left, not just the right. We need greater empathy on all sides.”

John Lantigua is a Miami freelance writer. He shared the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for his work at the Miami Herald. Lantigua's fifth novel, "The Ultimate Havana" will be published next year by Signet.

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