Grumpy old men

The aging exile leaders who are trying to keep Elian Gonzalez in the United States have a lot in common with their anti-democratic nemesis, Fidel Castro.

By Max J. Castro
Published April 6, 2000 8:00AM (EDT)

All week long the radio news in Miami has blared the same report: "Negotiations between Justice Department officials and the Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez are set to resume Thursday, April 6," the reporters intone, over and over.

Now, with the arrival of Juan Miguel Gonzalez from Cuba to finally retrieve his son, the impasse of the past four months seems incredible: How has it come to pass that the U.S. Justice Department, the scourge of drug dealers and Bill Gates, has been forced to negotiate with the extended family of Elian Gonzalez, average working-class people who, according to a federal district judge and virtually every immigration and family-law expert in this country, don't have a legal leg on which to stand?

The answer, of course, is the political strength of the Cuban-American community. But who are these people anyway, who make up four-tenths of 1 percent of the U.S. population, and how did they get such clout? Why do George W. Bush and Al Gore dance to their tune even against public opinion?

Why are they so obsessed with Fidel Castro that hatred of him and his system seems to outweigh all other values, even parental rights and, if you believe those who promise violence if Elian is removed from his uncle's Miami home, the rule of law? And why do they use language and tactics, including stifling dissent, that strike Americans as undemocratic and invite comparison with Castro and his regime?

A key fact about the Cuban-American community, one that's been obscured in this battle over a 6-year-old boy, is the fact that it's a gerontocracy. The oldest, most traumatized, most bitter generation is still the largest and most powerful group of Cubans. Americans are used to thinking of the Latino population as young, but in this and many other ways, Cubans are closer to the white American norm than to Latino averages.

While the census found that 20.4 percent of Americans were 55 or older as of March 1999, among Cuban-Americans the figure is almost 31 percent. In contrast, only 9 percent of Americans of Mexican origin are over 55. Conversely, only 22 percent of Cuban-Americans are under 21, compared to 43.9 percent of Mexicans and 30.8 of the American population overall.

In Miami, there are still many tens of thousands who lived through the 1959 revolution and its sequel of dispossession of the wealthy and the middle class, executions and the taking of political prisoners. A social revolution, like a civil war, is a heart-rending, polarizing event that leaves deep scars and has a long afterlife. Americans are still arguing about the Confederate flag and the legacy of the Civil War more than 130 years later.

Not only do these revolution survivors outnumber younger Cubans, they often compel their deference, out of respect, affection, fear, loyalty, convenience or even indifference. And those who disagree usually find themselves at a distinct linguistic disadvantage debating older Cubans on those few Spanish-language radio stations that actually permit debate.

As a Cuban-American who has taken stands unpopular with the hard-line leadership -- favoring the return of Elian to his father, for instance, and an end to the U.S. embargo -- I know firsthand that there is a huge Cuban-American political closet, filled with people who agree with me but will never say so publicly. And I've experienced the bitterness of the generational divide in personal and painful ways. Recently, at a wake for the wife of my uncle, an ultraconservative Cuban-American about 15 years my senior (I am 48), I went to shake his hand. He refused point blank.

Stunned, I walked outside and told my cousin, a 40-year-old moderately conservative attorney. He tried to laugh it off at first, then was apologetic. When the conversation turned to politics, he told me privately that "the embargo doesn't make sense" any more. But he had more important business to deal with and made it clear that he would not be speaking out on the issue any time soon.

But what explains the effectiveness of conservative Cuban-Americans in getting their way in the U.S. political system? Their clout is indisputable. They have forced the United States to maintain an eternal embargo against Cuba (in sharp contrast with our policies toward communist China policy). They've gotten the U.S. government to pay millions for television broadcasts to Cuba, TV Martm, that cannot be seen there because the Cuban government easily blocks the signal.

Indeed, this history helps explain why exile leaders embarked on what from the outside seems like a losing fight in the Elian case. If, year after year, I get the federal government to dish out big money for a television station with an audience of zero, surely I can get the U.S. government to give in, if our cause of freedom is made human in the persona of an adorable little boy.

Money is a big reason Cuban-Americans have succeeded in getting their agenda implemented. When Hispanic magazine identified the wealthiest Latinos in the United States, 40 percent turned out to be of Cuban origin. That's 10 times what you would expect, since Cuban-Americans make up just 4 percent of the Hispanic population.

With an initial helping hand from the Reagan administration, Cuban-Americans have been translating financial status into political capital for two decades through the Cuban American National Foundation, a powerful lobby. Campaign contributions by the Cuban elite are complemented by the hundreds of thousands of votes of other Cubans concentrated in Florida, a swing state with the fourth largest number of electoral votes in the nation.

So politicians pander. The pandering reached new heights in the last week, when Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, a moderate Democrat, suggested his police force wouldn't help the federal government transfer custody of Elian, and blamed President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, in advance, for any violence by Castro's enemies. Then Vice President Al Gore broke with Clinton and Reno, insisting the boy and his father should be given residency status and allowed to stay in the United States, a stance the New York Times called "brazen."

These moves are a little surprising, since Republicans, not Democrats have typically been the Cubans' best allies. (But there have been cracks in the GOP alliance, with Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla., recently coming out for returning Elian to his father on the basis of parental rights.) But Democrats are trying to make headway with the exiles, noticing a growing number of Democrats and swing voters in the community, and encouraged by the knowledge that Clinton did considerably better among Cuban-Americans than previous Democratic presidential candidates, especially against Bob Dole in 1996. Many Cubans turned away from Dole because the Republican party was in the midst of anti-immigrant crusade, Dole had little charisma and he had no ties with the community.

But Gore may be pandering in vain. George W. Bush is simpatico with Latinos, and has deep ties through his brother Jeb, the Florida governor who for many years lived in Miami and speaks good Spanish. Plus, the Republican Party is avoiding xenophobia for the moment. Bush will do fabulously among most Cuban-Americans, while the vice president has now managed to upset Cuban-American liberals. Polls show 20-25 percent of Cubans in Miami oppose the embargo. These are the people most likely to vote Democratic and favor reuniting Elian with his father.

The end of the Elian saga is still uncertain, although the arrival of his father has tilted the momentum toward returning the boy to Cuba. Meanwhile, what is certain is that ethnic tensions in Miami have escalated.

Some Miamians have resented the fact that Cubans are an assertive people who never bought into the notion that as Latino newcomers they should submit to the dominance of Anglo natives. Ironically, it's the same Cuban character trait Fidel Castro has displayed toward the United States for more than four decades. But now, many natives in Miami are feeling that Cubans, backed by a local power structure increasingly under their control, expect Cuban dominance and native submission. Penelas' actions exacerbated those feelings, and could lead to an anti-Cuban backlash among Miami's whites and blacks.

In the end, the Elian fight could be the last hurrah for old-guard Cubans, whose power is waning in the face of a new generation. If so, their agenda, including the embargo, will lose political support, too. But the demise of the hard-liners has been predicted before, yet the cold warriors always manage to survive -- in Miami as well as in Havana.

Max J. Castro

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