90 Miles to the North

How Miami’s Cuban hardliners lost their way.


MIAMI — For decades, the embargo against Cuba, along with efforts to isolate the Communist island, were gospel in Miami’s Cuban community. Dissent was shouted down, or worse. This position pervaded public life in a city where the political power has been held by Cuban Americans for at least 30 years.

So the scene at the famous Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana (always a predictable sound-stage for militant exiles) the day after U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement about normalizing relations with Cuba was revelatory — for what it wasn’t.

There were no throngs of protesters shouting. There were no police barricades and megaphones. There were, however, seven satellite trucks and maybe a dozen journalists, swirling around a handful of locals who were just trying to get inside for lunch. Fourteen years ago, after the feds snatched young Elian Gonzalez from his Miami relatives to reunite him with his father in Cuba, crowds took over the streets and tear gas filled the air.

But today, there were just a few old men in blue blazers and guayaberas holding signs, such as: “Obama you surrendered to the Castro Terrorist Coward.” Gray-haired Jay Fernandez, who declined to give his age, said the battle to block this move would be a political one. “As soon as Congress gets back, there’s going to be a legal fight coming up,” he said. The plan, he offered, was to support the politicians who oppose Obama’s warming toward Havana.

Offsetting this old guard was 23-year-old Gabriel Sirven, skateboard in hand. He’s a student at Miami Dade College, and a third-generation Cuban who had come to lend his voice to his grandfather’s generation. “If you open up relations and trade with Cuba, the Cuban government will get more power,” he said. The embargo didn’t collapse Cuba initially because the Soviet Union propped up the country, he explained. When the Soviet Union crumbled there was a financial crisis, but then Venezuela stepped in, he added. The embargo had to be continued.

But even Sirven admitted his was the minority position among his peers. “No way!” he laughed when asked if kids his age agreed with him. “To be honest,” he said, “my generation is kind of uneducated.”

The old men watching nodded approvingly and sipped their cafecitos.

Obama is taking advantage of this demographic shift. Whatever happens in Havana, the U.S. executive action to establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba is poised to radically alter this American city. The hardline exile generation that left the island in the 1960s is aging out, and their chokehold on this issue is weakening. Most of the Cubans who arrived here in Miami after the 1980 Mariel Boat Lift consider themselves economic refugees and didn’t bring with them the same anti-Castro fervor. They just wanted a better life. Polls by Florida International University and Latino Decisions, have shown support for the embargo dropping to about 50 percent among Cuban Americans.

The aggressive stance towards Havana and the Castro regime has been catered to all these years by politicians from the right (though occasionally from the left), who followed a simple political equation: Cuba has no natural resources America needs and is of little strategic importance. So it can be ignored. But the wealthy Miami exiles who organize their fellow countrymen to vote as a bloc in an important swing state? They cannot be ignored.

It took a lame duck president, freed up to throw political caution to the wind, and an aging of the hard liners to potentially break this ossified dynamic.

And what a dynamic it was. For decades, Miami has been a city with its own foreign policy. Local politicians could not get elected unless they towed the anti-Castro line, and their complicity enabled a violent history. Since the 1970s, there have been more than 30 bombings in and around Miami, against individuals and press outlets that dared to broach the subject of rapprochement, not to mention death threats and physical assaults. Too often, it seemed, those pushing for freedom in Cuba were willing to suspend them here. As a result, civic life, the free exchange of ideas, art, all suffered.

In 1998, a concert given by 91-year-old Compay Segundo in Miami Beach, had to be evacuated because of a bomb scare. A firebomb went off that same year at the Miami Beach nightclub Amnesia over its decision to host a Cuban singer. When music promoters brought the Cuban band Los Van Van to Miami a year later, concert-goers had to walk a gantlet of police holding back enraged protesters hurling insults and water bottles. In 2006, the Miami-Dade School Board banned a school book that didn’t portray Cuba in a sufficiently negative light. Militant groups continue to train with guns in the Everglades in preparation for the day they can take back the homeland. They’ve bragged about boat trips to Cuba to strafe the shoreline with machine guns, even as the U.S. waged a global war on terror.

There are real injustices being perpetrated in Cuba that deserve to known, like the Black Spring of 2003, in which 75 dissidents and journalists were arrested for peacefully advocating for change. And yes, it is still a Communist dictatorship which can be brutal to dissenters. But so were China and Vietnam when we began to normalize relations with them. Vietnam, of course, was the killing field for 50,000 Americans. Yet, somehow, Washington found a way to move on.

The hardliners’ long fight with dissenters was primarily Cuban on Cuban, and its inward-looking nature eventually diminished support among Miami’s non-Cubans. The Haitians, Colombians, Hondurans, African Americans, and Caucasians who make up what is among America’s most diverse cities, or at least it’s most international — and many of whom were reeling from crises in their own countries and communities — looked skeptically at the extreme approach the exiles took. The credibility hits were not lost on the younger generation.

Across town from the Versailles Café at Miami Dade College’s downtown campus, Ryan Serrano, 19 — like Sirven, a third-generation Cuban — corroborated the generational shift. He and all his Cuban American peers were tired of the Cold War rhetoric about embargoes, he said. They wanted an optimistic future, not one dominated by hate. “When Obama said all that, and talked about Miami and how we have done so much, it just shocked the place,” he said. “It’s just a great step forward. It almost completely eliminates the problems left over from the Cold War.”

Then, rather matter-of-factly, he summed up the mood of the city, the real reason there was calm and quiet despite this momentous news. Change was inevitable, and it was coming.

“The old hard-liners, they’re going to be gone soon,” Serrano said, “and that view is going to go with them.”

Photo Credit: Joe Raedle / Getty Images News

Tristram Korten is a journalist based in Miami, and editor of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.