Should he stay or should he go?

Miami exiles and Havana dissidents split on Elian Gonzalez and the future of Cuba.

Published March 8, 2000 11:00AM (EST)

Manuel David Orrio, a well-known
dissident journalist in Cuba and a
former political detainee, is about to
utter a phrase that will open the
latest chapter in the political tug-of-war over Elian
Gonzalez -- one that
pits Fidel Castro's opposition groups in
Miami and Havana against each
other on the eve of a federal court case
that will determine the young refugee's

"Fidel Castro is right in this case,"
says Orrio, a member of the
Cooperative of Independent Journalists
in Havana. "According to
international accords on children, the
boy should be brought
back to Cuba to be with his father,"
Orrio argues when reached by phone in
Cuba. "Castro is right about that and
has used the case to rally tremendous
support here in Cuba and in the
international community. The people
pushing this have played into
Castro's hands."

Of course, in the eyes of the right-wing Cuban exile community, Fidel Castro has never been right about anything, and Orrio would be lucky to escape a Little Havana restaurant in one piece, despite his credentials as an anti-communist.

Dissident leader Hector Palacios, who
runs Havana's Center for Social Studies
and has been jailed numerous times for
his political positions, says, "What we
are seeing is the extreme left here in
Cuba and the extreme right in Miami
fighting over this child. We think the
boy should be here with his father and
both sides are using him."

The emotional battle over Elian
underscores the discord in approaches
sometimes, ideologies between the two
anti-Castro camps. In Miami, the
swaggering right-wing opposition is led
by the politically and economically
powerful Cuban American National
Foundation, which, like most Cuban-Americans, supports keeping Elian in the
United States. On the other side of the
Gulfstream are the frequently more
moderate and relatively threadbare
anti-communists of Cuba, splintered
groups under constant threat of arrest.
Many Cuban dissidents believe that their
interests are being ignored, and even
betrayed, by exile leaders in Miami,
who have received far more publicity.

"On the radio here you have people who
call the dissidents spies and agents
of Cuban state security," says Gladys
Perez, a former right-wing Miami
Cuban who came back an ally of the
dissidents after a visit to Cuba in the
mid-'90s. "It's absolutely awful. Even
if you are fighting for Cuba, but
don't think exactly as they do, they
won't support you. These are people
who are risking their freedom and
possibly their lives."

Dario Moreno, a professor of political
science at Florida International
University and a prominent commentator,
agrees. "I think the exile movement
here has been very insensitive to the
dissidents," he says. "To speak out
in Cuba takes great courage, but in
Miami you hear people saying that the
dissidents don't do enough. This leads
to a backlash in Cuba. The dissidents
say, 'Hey, listen, you in Miami are not
risking your lives.' It was an unstable
relationship to begin and has been
extremely strained by the Elian thing."

Ninoska Perez Castellon, spokeswoman for
the Cuban American National
Foundation, by far the most powerful of
the right-wing exile groups, says her
organization supports some dissidents
and has provided them with radio
exposure in Miami and broadcasts to the
island. But Perez Castellon does not
hide her irritation with others, like
Elizardo Sanchez, who spent eight years
in a Cuban prison for political crimes,
but has also been allowed to travel
outside of Cuba. She believes Sanchez is
being used as a propaganda tool by
Castro to project an image of tolerance.
And some dissidents may be siding with
Castro on the Elian issue out of fear
of reprisals, though she concedes that
others may be expressing their honest

"I don't know what to make of people who
admit there are large human
rights problems in Cuba, but they still
want us to send a six-year-old boy to
live there," she says.

As president of the Cuban Commission on
Human Rights and National Reconciliation
in Havana, Sanchez offers a different
perspective: "The laws
in Cuba are not applied evenly. That is
a major issue for us," Sanchez says.
"The great
majority of dissidents here in Cuba
believe this case should be decided
according to the law and that law says
the child should go to his closest
relative, in this
case the father. The case shouldn't be
decided in a way that is just to
gain a momentary political advantage and
hurt us in the long run. And
while it drags on, the whole world has
lost sight of the lack of a society
of laws on this island."

In the past three months, the case has
taken on the dimensions of a biblical
drama. Some exiles have compared Elian
to young Moses, found floating in
the reeds, who will lead them back to
their promised island. The case has
also become clogged with real
personalities who are often peripheral
to the case:
Attorney General Janet Reno; Elian's
grandmothers, who came from Cuba to
visit him and try to take him back; a
Cuban diplomat accused of espionage;
Fidel Castro's estranged daughter, who
testified before a Senate hearing last
week; and various U.S. politicians who have
visted Elian and claim to have
had conversations with him, even though
he speaks no English and they no
Spanish. But Cuban observers have their
own take on the battle over Elian and
they've coined their own phrase for it:
"political pedophilia."

As the Elian drama has raged in Florida
and Washington, diverting media
attention from Havana, the stakes have
increased in Cuba, where the Castro
government has waged a crackdown on
dissidents, with the arrest of dozens of
anti-communist activists. The dissidents
say the fact that their
colleagues have been dragged from their
homes and thrown into jails, some
of them facing long prison terms, is
being ignored by the press and the
world. "We are being forgotten here,"
says the Center for Social Studies'

Orrio agrees. He says in November,
the epic of Elian began, dissidents
managed to meet with Latin American
leaders during a regional summit in
Havana, achieving unprecedented
worldwide press coverage. Now no one
pays attention to the tribulations of
those on the island.

"Castro is coming out the winner here,"
he says.

It would be a stretch to say that the
Elian saga has caused a complete split
between conservative anti-Castro forces
in the United States and the moderate
opposition on the island -- both are seeking radical Democratic reform -- but it has
exposed their differences and dampened
already strained relations.

An overwhelming majority of Cuban exiles
support the U.S. economic embargo
against Cuba, a major building block of
the Miami effort to topple the Castro
regime. "But I'd says 85 percent of the
dissidents in Cuba are against the
embargo and see it as the main excuse
that Castro uses to justify repression
here," says Palacios.

A document signed in February by about
50 dissidents denounced the Castro
government for human rights violations,
but also called for the end of the

The two sides also dueled over the visit
of Pope John Paul II to Cuba in
1998. While some exiles insisted the
aging pope's visit would legitimize the
Castro regime, the dissidents declared
that the trip offered a way to
strengthen the Cuban Catholic church,
which supports democratic change in
Cuba. The debate exposed the fact that
many exiles don't trust the Catholic
church, even though it is led by a
Polish pontiff who is arguably the
world's most successful and prominent
anti-communist. And Havana's own
Catholic leader, Cardinal Jaime Ortega,
has sometimes been
reviled on right-wing Cuban radio as
being soft on the communists.

But a more fundamental truth about the
relationship between the
conservative exiles and the Havana
opposition is that, in Miami, there is
deep suspicion for any dissidents who
still remain in Cuba.

The Elian incident raises a crucial
question: Is it possible to support
both the foundation and the dissidents
in their battles with the Castro
government? Some Miami moderates, like
Gladys Perez, have already made the
break with the hardline opposition.

Florida International University's
Moreno says the rift is important
because it underscores a split in
philosophies between the two groups
about how the agenda for Cuba's future
should be shaped.

"The majority of dissidents want a soft
landing. They want to build the
infrastructure of a democracy and see
change come out of that," he says. "The
extreme Cuban exiles, on the other hand,
want a violent overthrow. They want to
see a Romanian solution, an entire
regime swept aside, not a Polish or
Czech solution, an evolution. Some
exiles here want to go back to Cuba in
1959, pre-Castro. The dissidents don't
want that."

By John Lantigua

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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Communism Cuba Immigration