After Hurricane Elian

Miami is a city asunder, divided by race, but the Cuban exiles' stranglehold on local and national power has unmistakably eased.

By Max J. Castro

Published June 28, 2000 11:20PM (EDT)

Now it is over. Elian Gonzalez returned to Cuba Wednesday after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal presented by the boy's Miami relatives.

In the wake of "Hurricane Elian," Miami is a city asunder. The divisions, evident on the surface in the silent duel of flags waving from cars and homes -- here Cuban, there American, yonder both -- are deep, complex, contradictory and often intimate.

Flags are not the only symbol of the struggle. At the height of local tension, after the Immigration and Naturalization Service removed the boy from his Miami relatives' home in an April pre-dawn raid, critics of Miami's Cuban-American leadership threw bunches of bananas at City Hall.

Since that incident, the banana has become the symbol of opposition to the status quo, and "banana republic" is the favorite epithet used by those who are fed up with the hard-line exiles' clout in local government.

Is the Elian saga a turning point for the city, marking the beginning of the end of the exiles' control of Miami politics? And does it also herald a softening of the U.S. hard-line policy toward Cuba, a policy exiles have done so much to maintain? It seems no accident that this same week, Congress will approve measures to allow U.S. agricultural sales to Cuba for the first time in 38 years. It's the first significant break in the embargo and signals a major departure from the trend toward confrontation that characterized U.S.-Cuba relations five years ago.

It will be some time before we know the lasting impact of the Elian saga on Miami and the United States, but even now several things are clear. The Elian struggle has dramatically worsened ethnic tension in this multicultural city. The conflict pitted Cubans against Anglos, but also blacks against Cubans. African-American feeling grew so bitter that some blacks were willing to march with whites waving Confederate flags in the hastily organized "pro-American" demonstrations that drew several thousand protestors in the wake of the federal enforcement action to remove Elian from the Little Havana home.

Black attitudes, in turn, have hardened many Cuban-Americans' feelings toward African-Americans, never very positive in the first place. Many Cubans see black involvement in the rallies -- some of which had a xenophobic tinge -- as meaning African-Americans have such rancor and envy toward Cubans they are willing even to consort with racists just to spite Miami's newly-dominant ethnic group.

Virtually every racial and ethnic group in Miami is upset about the Elian drama, but many Cubans are feeling humiliated and besieged, and not just because of the repeated court defeats. The federal operation to retrieve Elian took place the very day the government in Cuba celebrated the 39th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs victory over exile invaders. For Cuban-Americans, the Bay of Pigs was a defining event, marking the end of hopes for an early return to the homeland, and giving rise to Cuban American allegiance to the GOP in the wake of President Kennedy's perceived "betrayal."

When, 39 years later to the day, a Democratic administration seized Elian, the exile community exploded. Hundreds flew the Cuban flag, while others flew the American flag upside down and a few hotheads even burned the Stars and Stripes. And then the long pent-up anger of many non-Cubans, black and white, boiled over, prompting pro-American demonstrations and fueling ethnic strife.

Many Cubans see the local black and white backlash as anti-Cuban racism and xenophobia. That element was not entirely absent, but it was more than that. Liberal whites and blacks who would not dream of supporting English Only laws or other anti-immigrant initiatives were outraged by the exile community's hysteria. So they brought out the American flag and the bananas.

The "banana republic" label is laden with anti-Latin American connotations. It also doesn't fit. Family members of Jorge Mas Santos, head of the Cuban American Foundation (CANF) -- which bankrolled the fight to keep Elian in Miami -- own controlling interests in telecommunications companies worth billions of dollars and listed on the New York Stock Exchange. CANF leaders are sophisticated about the workings of American capitalism and politics. That sophistication and clout, not bananas, is the secret of their success in plugging into the American political system and turning it to their own devices.

Miami's Cuban-American community is more like Taiwan circa 1960 than the stereotypical banana republic. It's a community of people displaced by a Marxist revolution. Here, economic success and professional expertise mixes with a fierce, anachronistic-sounding anti-Communism and authoritarian tendencies.

Ultimately, the Elian case may signal a turning point in U.S.-Cuban relations. The decision to allow agricultural sales is a huge step toward change. U.S.-Cuba relations worsened four years ago, with the downing of the "Brothers to the Rescue" airplanes in 1996, and the resulting approval of the Helms-Burton Act. In the ensuing years, business and farm lobbies began to actively work against economic sanctions, and U.S. public opinion seemed to turn away from support for diplomatic isolation and the embargo.

But as late as 1999, the hard-line lobby and the three Cuban-American members of Congress and their allies were able to turn back an effort to exempt food and medicine from the embargo. Have these forces been fatally wounded by their actions in the Elian fiasco? The action by the U.S. Congress to ease the embargo is an important indicator that may be the case.

One reason is that in the Elian saga, the iron triangle defined by the United States, Fidel Castro, and the exiles took on a new configuration. This time the governments of the United States and Cuba converged on a common position, leaving the exile community alone to fight a two-front battle. Even their Republican allies backed off when it became clear that there was no public support for citizenship for Elian Gonzalez or for hearings into the INS raid.

But is the new geometry lasting? Or can Cuban American conservatives make normalization as drawn out and excruciatingly difficult an affair as they made the resolution of the Elian saga?

In the Elian case, the hard-liners overreached so badly and looked so bad in the eyes of the U.S. public they gave their adversaries -- the U.S. farm lobby, Cuban American moderates and other embargo opponents -- the enhanced political clout needed to finally make a breakthrough. Even Sen. Jesse Helms, fierce anti-Castro stalwart, friend to Cuban Americans and sponsor of the Helms-Burton law toughening the embargo, voted to ease sanctions against the wishes of the Cuban-American lobby.

The story is different in Miami, where no changing of the guard can be expected, although there is a change in their tune. Some of the very people who helped fire tensions at the height of the controversy, including Miami-Dade mayor Alex Penelas, have been talking the language of dialogue and reconciliation ever since.

Yet the fruits of such efforts have been meager. For instance, top civic leaders met in the days following the INS raid to discuss scenarios in the event of Elian's return to Cuba. But they were not able even to agree that all communities would accept a final court ruling, and allow the boy to leave without protest. But a split in the Cuban-American leadership has become increasingly evident since the Elian affair. Some leaders -- most notably business executive Carlos Saladrigas and Pedro Freyre, head of the advocacy organization Facts About Cuban Exiles -- are pushing a new, more moderate approach for the Cuban American community. They advocate focusing more on the post-Fidel future, and urge local leaders to draw a boundary between Miami governance and anti-Castro politics.

Calls for change have been rejected, however, by conservative Cuban American icons like the nonagenarian retired banker Luis Botifoll and by CANF. Instead, CANF has gone on the offensive, lambasting critics and launching a campaign of ads in the U.S. media exposing the government of Fidel Castro for human rights violations, and claiming that the Elian affair was not a defeat.

In reality, hard-line forces have been dealt three tough blows in quick succession. First, the Supreme Court struck down the state of Massachusetts' sanctions against the government of Myanmar, invalidating Miami-Dade County's own ultra hard-line Cuba policy. Next the Miami relatives lost their last chance to keep Elian in the U.S. when their appeal to the Supreme Court was rejected. Finally, Congress agreed to ease the embargo, striking a blow against the hard liners' favorite policy, which they have fought tooth and nail to maintain and expand.

No community has been as touched by the Cuba debate as Miami. The Elian affair, like a seismic cataclysm, exposed deep social and cultural fault lines and brought to the surface long-suppressed resentments that, on many sides, seem to burn only hotter with time. Often, it is personal. In the wake of Elian, friendships were lost, affairs were ended and feuds flared: that is, wherever people did not opt for the more frequent recourse to a tense silence or to careful avoidance.

That toll was brought home to me with special force the day Elian was reunited with his father. On that night, I had a late dinner with my best friend and his girlfriend, both Cuban-Americans. I had just appeared on "Larry King Live," debating CANF chairman Jorge Mas Santos, and my friends had watched.

Inevitably, our conversation centered on Elian and the events of that morning. Although both my friends thought father and son should be reunited -- a decidedly minority view among Cuban-Americans -- it soon became clear they felt very differently about the case. Based on instinct and scuttlebutt, the woman, who comes from a family of 1960s exiles with an upper-middle-class background in Cuba, took a dim view of Elian's father, who she saw as a macho lowlife. But her boyfriend, my best friend -- the child of dirt-poor Cuban immigrants who arrived in New York City in the 1940s -- took personal offense, and countered with his own disparaging view of the Miami relatives. An argument ensued, turned bitter and ended in silence. The next day, my friend told me that his girlfriend had ended the relationship.

It's a tale that could be recounted by a depressing number of people in Miami these sad and searing seven months. Yet let's not write the city or the Cuban-Americans off just yet. My friends finally reasoned it out and decided to get back together. As Elian went home, there were no riots in the city, and the mood among militants was mostly quiet and resigned.

Maybe someday soon Miami will catch up with Taiwan, and Cuban-Americans will join the Koreans, North and South, who lately seem eager to settle their differences peacefully. I just hope I live to see and revel in that day.

Max J. Castro

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