Every diaspora judges itself, whether secretly or ostentatiously, to be both unique and uniquely sinned against. In this, the three-quarters of a million Cuban-Americans of South Florida are anything but exceptional. But like the Jews, the Armenians, and the White Russians before them, the Miami Cubans have tended to see themselves, both in their qualities and in their historical grievances, as sui generis. The common currency of exile is memory, above all the memory of wounds. But what may be necessary for group survival within the context of an exile group inevitably will appear to many outsiders, who share neither the memories nor the wounds, as touchy, clannish self-absorption. This has been the case with the Cuban exile community in South Florida in its relations with non-Cuban Miami, and, more broadly, with U.S. public opinion at large ever since Cuban refugees first started arriving in Miami after the victory of Fidel Castro in 1959.

It should be remembered that the first Cuban exiles to arrive after the triumph of the Fidelistas genuinely believed that they would be going home within a few months. They were encouraged in this belief by the United States, particularly once the Kennedy administration had come into office. During the run-up to the American-sponsored invasion of Cuba by CIA-trained exile groups--the operation that ended so disastrously at the Bay of Pigs--it was an article of faith in Cuban Miami that the United States was committed to overthrowing the Castro regime. And despite the subsequent bitterness in the community that still permeates older Cuban-Americans, most Cuban exiles have wanted to believe, in the words of the Miami entrepreneur, Pancho Blanco, that "no matter how often she has let us down, the United States has been our champion."

After the end of the Cuban missile crisis (viewed in Miami as yet another betrayal) the United States desisted from promising the Cuban exile community military support. But it continued tacitly to encourage the minority within the exile community that still dreamt of military action to overthrow Castro. The United States largely turned a blind eye to the efforts of exile militias and terrorist groups based in South Florida to launch attacks on Cuba. More crucially, every U.S. administration, from Kennedy through Clinton, with the sole exception of Jimmy Carter, came into office reiterating American hostility to the Castro regime and America's hope for its eventual ouster. Different administrations placed greater or lesser emphasis on the Cuban "problem," for the obvious reason that from Washington's perspective, U.S.-Cuban relations were to a very large extent an aspect of U.S.-Soviet relations. As the Cold War flared and subsided, so too did the energy with which Cuba-sponsored guerrilla movements in the Americas and elsewhere and with which the U.S. pursued its campaign against Cuba.

But whatever the vagaries of U.S. policy toward Cuba, the basic American stance toward the Castro regime has been very much in sync with the thinking in the Miami exile community. One demonstration of this is that the constant in U.S. policy has been the trade embargo against the island that President Kennedy originally imposed and that has been in place ever since. Whatever the immediate intent of the embargo, the fact is that the Soviet subsidies to Cuba rapidly rendered it useless as a practical instrument for bringing down the regime in Havana. For most of the past 30 years, its real importance has been symbolic--as a visible manifestation of hostility to the Castro regime and everything it has stood for.

As the years have passed, even the rationales given in Washington for the embargo--which, in any case, as business interest in Cuba among Europeans and Latin Americans has picked up, has become ever more ineffective--have shifted from the practical to the symbolic. Even those in Congress who have favored an eventual lifting of the embargo have insisted that it should only be done in return for concessions from Havana, and after evidence that the Cuban government is willing to take steps toward democratization and correcting its disgraceful human rights policies. The dominant view for the last 30 years, however, has been that the embargo can only be lifted when there is democracy in Cuba--which has been little more than a thinly disguised way of saying when Castro falls.

And in this, the Cuban exile community has been in steadfast agreement. The problem, however, is that Washington's obsession with Cuba, except during the Kennedy administration when the problem was new and during the Reagan administration when Cuba was viewed as being behind the Sandinistas and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrillas in El Salvador, has been largely instrumental, whereas for the exile community it has obviously been the central preoccupation. And this has led to a kind of perpetual state of cognitive dissonance and mutual misreading in relations between the Miami Cuban exiles and Washington. If American administrations have insisted that they were committed to "restoring democracy" to Cuba, Cuban-Americans, who have seen such a restoration as not only being predicated on the fall of Castro but on their own return to the island, have chosen to understand the American commitment as one that will eventually see them home.

To be sure, Cuban exiles have lived for 36 years in a mingled state of perpetual disappointment and perpetual expectation with regard to when they will return and when the U.S. government will finally become serious about unseating Fidel Castro. But, at least until recently, that hope has endured largely unshaken, even as the Miami exile community itself has been transformed by the gradual passing from the scene of people who lived in Cuba as adults before 1959, the rise of American-born generations, and the arrival of new waves of immigrants from the island. Particularly during the past 15 years, immigrating Cubans have been very different culturally, sociologically, and even to some extent racially, since the latest arrivals are the first exiles to number a significant portion of nonwhite Cubans.


Exile is about hoping, of course, even when hope is unrealistic, and about preserving to the extent possible a collective sense of exceptionalism. But in the case of the Cubans in South Florida, not only U.S. resolve in maintaining the trade embargo against the island, but also the special status Cubans have enjoyed in the United States between Congress' 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act and the revision of that status by President Clinton in May 1995, has led to this sense that dreams of return are not without foundation. From 1966 until this year, all Cubans have been treated presumptively as political refugees, not immigrants. Ordinary Americans, both in South Florida and in the country as a whole, have had difficulty with the idea that Cubans are exiles rather than an immigrant group. But Cubans could point to the special treatment afforded them and no other collectivity in the United States as evidence that the American government agreed with their interpretation of their situation rather than with the general public's.

This difference in perception has, of course, been critical to the animosities that have intermittently arisen in south Florida between Cubans who attribute much of Miami's contemporary importance to their entrepreneurial skills and effort and non-Cubans who have tended to see their Cuban neighbors as a group that has done extremely well over the past 36 years, in part because of special privileges few other groups coming to America received. In other words, they are describing the history of an immigrant group, which, for all its vicissitudes, has certainly been no worse than that of the Irish, or the Italians. But the crux of the misunderstanding that has dogged the community lies in the fact that, rightly or wrongly, Cubans in South Florida have not seen themselves as immigrants but as exiles.

And from the exile perspective, every hour of the 36 years since Castro took power has been an hour of added suffering. No amount of material success, they insist, can make up for the loss of a homeland--particularly a homeland only 140 miles away from their homes in South Florida. They may have remade Miami, but however comfortable it has now become, it is not and can never be Havana. It is because this seems as self-evident to most Cuban Miamians, whatever their political views, as the fact of Cuban success seems obvious to non-Cubans that so little common ground has been gained in Miami over the course of the past 36 years.

But these narratives, which seem so mutually exclusive at first, actually share a central element: geography. For what sets the Cuban case apart is the brute fact of geographical proximity. The White Russians left St. Petersburg and Moscow and could not rest until they got to Berlin and Paris; the Jews were dispersed to every corner of the world, from Spain to Harbin; while the Armenians, when they fled Anatolia, wound up resettling in places as far away as Fresno, California. But the winds of exile set the Cubans down only a short distance from their homes. The break with the past was thus absolute, since between 1959 and 1979, almost no Cuban exiles were permitted to return to Cuba even for a visit, and the possibilities that have existed since then have been curtailed repeatedly. At the same time, it was as if staying in Miami--another way of staying nearby--was to remain psychically in readiness for the moment when return at last did become possible.

What the Cuban exiles wrought in Miami was not the first time a refugee or an immigrant group to the United States had transformed the culture and feel of an American city. But unlike, say, the Irish in Boston or the Jews in New York, or, for that matter, the German-Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in Hollywood or on American university campuses, the Cubans could never feel at home in Miami even as they remade it. They might have resisted early attempts by the American authorities to aid them in resettling in other parts of the United States--many of those who were persuaded to leave eventually returned--but what they were building was not so much a place they could call their own so much as a place that would stand in for the Cuba they had lost, an alternate Havana whose deepest function was to help these Cubans resist the blandishments of assimilation and give them a civic context in which they could preserve their exile status.

Of course, many Cuban exiles, particularly those who came to the United States as children, have assimilated rapidly into the American mainstream. And after 36 years, many Cuban exiles and, predictably, many Cuban-Americans born in the United States, are not interested in returning to the island to live even if Castro were to fall. A recent Miami Herald poll showed that for the first time a substantial number of Cuban Miamians were willing to concede that they would not be going back to Cuba.

Nonetheless, few people of Cuban origin in Miami have been willing to describe themselves simply as Americans or to forswear the possibility, however remote, of one day returning to the island. This is in marked distinction to their relatives in the smaller but still quite substantial Cuban communities that are to be found in Los Angeles, Chicago, or the New York area. Miami Cubans may say to a pollster that they don't believe they are likely to go back for good, but they leave a bolt hole of possibility open, reserving decisions until Castro disappears from the scene.

Such a position is both very Cuban and very American. On one level, it simply reflects the fact that many people in Miami are nursing very real wounds. For the generation that left Cuba as adults, it is a question of lost property and status, of lives that had to be remade in the United States; in short, losses that could never be made good, and that could never even be imagined as being recouped except, symbolically at any rate, through Castro's fall. It has become a matter of honor to never stop hoping. For the younger generations, particularly those too young to have had any memory of life in Cuba, there was not only the archetypal exile experience of growing up in Miami hearing the tales of a lost country over the breakfast table, but the very American expectation that no destiny is definitive and no defeat permanent. To believe in return, even to believe that somehow Cubans from the exile and Cubans from the island would, once liberated from Fidel Castro, find common ground was a quintessential exercise in American optimism.


But if different generations of Miami Cubans have had different sources and rationales for their adherence to the idea of themselves as a people in exile and for their unwillingness to give up the idea of return, however far-fetched they may concede it is rationally, the result has been a singular uniformity in Miami. Cuban group cohesion has persisted in conditions which, historically, have tended to corrode the group cohesion of other diasporas. White Russians, for example, were incapable of surviving the combination of the persistence of the Bolshevik state in their native country and their own success in their new homelands. Perhaps, in time, a similar etiolation of identity will overcome the Cubans of South Florida as well. Certainly, many are intermarrying with non-Cubans in Miami, and while the upper echelons of the South Florida business and professional establishments remain overwhelmingly Anglo, the incoming cohorts of doctors, lawyers, brokers, and entrepreneurs are heavily Cuban in origin. But for the moment not only is the idea of Cubanness still compelling, but, in an age in which assimilation is unfashionable, the reasons for willingly jettisoning so powerful and coherent an ethnic identity are hard to discern.

Moreover, militating against even a slow atrophying of Cubanness among the younger generation of Cuban-Americans is the fact that from 1980 onward, more than 200,000 new Cuban migrants have arrived in Miami. For all the talk of Miami Cubans returning to the island after Castro falls, the movement has been almost entirely northward and is likely to remain so whatever happens on the island. Officials of the state of Florida already have contingency plans in place to deal with the mass movement of up to half a million Cubans north across the Straits of Florida in the event that the Castro regime collapses suddenly. The trend has been further accentuated by Havana's recent willingness to allow first the elderly and then almost any Cuban who can afford to do so to travel. The result of this liberalization has been to reunite, however briefly, Cubans in Miami with relatives who remained on the island after 1959, some of whom they have had no contact with for more than 30 years.

Despite all the tensions that exist between Cubans in Miami and Cubans on the island, the reality is that they know far more about each other today than they did a decade ago. Many of the recent Cuban arrivals in South Florida grew up under communism. However much they may hate Castro, neither he nor the society he engineered are figments of the imagination to them as they are to so many Cuban exiles who left in the 1960s. All of this may seem obvious or long overdue, but in the forced house of exile that Cuban Miami has been for so long this mingling has been transformative. A Cuban-American businesswoman whose husband fought with the exile invasion force at the Bay of Pigs told me that her views had been turned upside down by her encounters with these new arrivals. "I realize that whether I like it or not, people think differently on the island," she said. "And also, whether I like it or not, it will not be up to us in the exile to decide what happens in Cuba. We can help, but they will have to decide."

Outside Miami, such words might seem like the most perfunctory bow to reality. But in Cuban exile circles, they represent an enormous shift from what was going on in Miami as recently as two or three years ago. At that time, it was commonly assumed that the exiles' moment had arrived at last, and that the fall of the Soviet Union of necessity sooner or later would entail the fall of the Castro regime. It was impossible, as many friends of mine in Miami insisted at the time, that communism could survive in Havana when it could not survive in Moscow, particularly since the Castro regime had become so dependent on Soviet subsidies.

As things turned out, the Castro regime buckled but it did not break. Castro seems to have opted for a Chinese-style response of combining moves toward a market economy with strengthened one-party rule and continuing political repression. Obviously, the Cuban government so far has not been able to provide much in the way of real economic growth. Nonetheless, the pace of foreign investment is increasing, and the sense of beleaguerment, evident to most visitors to Havana two or three years ago, has given way to the cautious sense that things will soon begin to improve on the island.


Cuban exiles sustain their support for the embargo despite their growing awareness that Castro may not ever fall if things are allowed to take their present course. But their relationship to that embargo, and their participation in it, has become more contradictory. They viewed the 1992 passage of the Cuban Democracy Act, sponsored by Representative Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), as the last nail in the coffin of Cuban socialism. Yet the act contained elements that at the time seemed at odds with a measure ostensibly meant to ratchet up the pressure on the Castro regime and bring about its eventual collapse.

While the act attempted to bar foreign subsidiaries of U.S. corporations from trading with Cuba, one of the less remarked-upon provisions of the Torricelli bill was that it upgraded telephone communication between the United States and Cuba. Whereas previously anyone wanting to call Cuba had to do so through a third country (usually Canada), which notoriously was a time-consuming and frustrating proposition at best, the Torricelli bill made it possible, for the first time in decades, for people in Miami to call Havana direct and to receive collect calls from the island on a regular basis. Since the bill became law, they have been doing so with alacrity. The result, probably not anticipated by its most ardent backers, is that for many exiles and children and grandchildren of exiles there has been a psychological reconnection with the island on a very profound and complicated level. Miami Cubans are able to have their say at long last, and, as the businesswoman had implied, they have been doing a lot of listening as well.

Such a result might have been predicted. The Castro regime is not going to be brought down by talk across the Straits of Florida. But the dreams of return that the exile community has hewed to for so long, and, more immediately, its ability to go on supporting with good conscience an embargo and other restrictions that, in the short term at least, prevent them from getting money and supplies to family members on the island, are threatened by this new circumstance. To an outsider, there would appear to be a great contradiction between the polling data that shows continuing support among Miami Cubans for a tightened U.S. trade embargo and the obsession with telephoning relatives (and, for that matter, of surreptitiously sending money to Cuba, something that is being done in Cuban Miami on a wide scale) that grips many in the exile community. After all, the liberalized telecommunications sanctioned by the Cuban Democracy Act led to an agreement between American phone carriers and the Castro regime that gives the Cuban government a dollar royalty for every call placed from the United States to Cuba and something more than that for every collect call placed from Cuba to the United States. It seems almost perverse to deny the Castro regime the dollars Cuban-American visitors might bring with them on visits while simultaneously sanctioning very large transfers based on the new phone links.

Some cynics, in Miami, Havana, and elsewhere, attribute the communications exception to the influence of Jorge Mas Canosa. Mas Canosa is the director of the Cuban-American National Foundation, the largest and most influential Cuban-American group. He is also the head of a construction company called Church and Tower that has done a considerable amount of work for at&t. And yet there is no evidence, for all the rumors that have surrounded Jorge Mas throughout his career, that his stated reason and that of the foundation, as it is universally referred to in Miami, for supporting more communication between Miami and the island was not in fact the salient one: that such contacts would lead to an undermining of the Castro regime in the mind of ordinary Cubans--an outcome far more critical for Mas Canosa, whose political ambitions in a post-Castro Cuba even his enemies concede to be genuine, rather than any transitory business advantage.


In any case, the foundation was instrumental in lobbying for the passage of the Cuban Democracy Act. Indeed, it was after a meeting with foundation officials during the 1992 presidential campaign that candidate Clinton endorsed the Torricelli bill. Such an outcome was anything but a foregone conclusion at the time. A number of senior officials within the Bush administration had expressed grave doubts about the legislation. For Commerce and State Department officials in particular, the prospect of a bill that reasserted the authority of American law over the business of foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies seemed to subvert 30 years of effort all precisely directed to get foreign governments to treat these U.S. subsidiaries no differently than the domestic corporations in the countries in which they were located. But pressured by Clinton's endorsement of the bill, and unwilling to risk the ire of the overwhelmingly Republican Cuban-American voters who were critical to his chances of winning Florida in the 1992 election, President Bush soon declared that he too supported the legislation.

This was hardly the first time that either Mas Canosa or the Cuban-American National Foundation had demonstrated their influence on the national level, but it was a particularly striking exhibition nonetheless. The lesson it seemed to demonstrate was that where Cuban policy was concerned both national parties would bow to what they perceived the wishes of the Cuban exile community to be. More than that, by bringing both the Republican incumbent and the Democratic nominee into line, the foundation once more demonstrated both to Cuban Miami and to the country at large that it had been accepted in Washington as just as much the legitimate institutional representation of the Cuban-American community as the mainline American Jewish organizations--on which, in its inception, the foundation had quite consciously modeled itself--were for the American Jewish community.

Such a perception, however much Mas Canosa's enemies may choose to claim otherwise, is anything but misplaced. Mas Canosa is a controversial figure, even in Miami. It is common in South Florida to encounter Cubans who are either agnostic about Mas Canosa's leadership or even bitterly critical of it who still insist that if Cuban exiles have a voice about U.S.-Cuban relations the credit must go to the foundation, whatever else can be said about its influence over Miami or its political program for a post-Castro Cuba

The crux of the matter, however, is that these accomplishments are now largely in the past. The foundation remains recognized in Washington as the voice of Cuban Miami. The problem is that its voice counts for much less today than it did even a year ago, let alone during the halcyon days of the Reagan administration. The new situation that the foundation in particular and the Cuban exile community in general have been confronted with is that they are no longer preaching to the choir. There are many people in Washington who believe that it is time to try another tactic with Cuba, and more who simply feel that in the wake of the end of the Cold War, Cuba is not that important one way or the other. Meanwhile, many in the business establishment are furious with the prospect of Canadian, European, and Latin American investors moving into Cuba on a large scale so that, when Castro does eventually fall or pass from the scene, American business will be too late.


The changed stance of the Clinton administration is an indicator of that change. The same administration that is in practical terms responsible for the success of the Torricelli bill has firmly opposed Senator Helms' recent effort to further toughen the embargo. The biggest concern, apparently, has been that the Helms bill violates various foreign trade agreements. But in fact the same could have been said of the Torricelli bill.

Far more significant, of course, has been the administration's decision in effect to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966. Faced last year with the movement of more than 40,000 Cuban boat people toward Florida, the Clinton administration broke with both law and tradition and refused to allow the refugees to enter, instead interning them at the U.S. base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, alongside Haitian boat people. This decision stupefied Cuban Miami. Without warning, their special status had been removed. Their relatives, instead of being viewed by the U.S. government as refugees from Castro's tyranny, were being treated as another bunch of refugees clamoring at the gates of an America increasingly unwilling to accept any more illegal migrants.

In fact, before making this decision, the administration consulted not only the Governor of Florida, Lawton Chiles, but Jorge Mas Canosa and other officials of the Cuban-American National Foundation, who reluctantly went along with the decision. The administration accompanied its decision with severe new restrictions on travel to Cuba by Cuban-Americans, and the sending of remittances--something the foundation had been urging for some time. Nonetheless, even this concession was unimportant compared to the radical break of the decision to treat Cubans trying to get to the United States as ordinary migrants. Many in Cuban Miami chose to believe that this policy was only a temporary response to an emergency and claimed that, by allowing the migrants to leave Cuba, Castro had manipulated the whole affair.

Doubtless, in a sense he had. But by the same token, the Clinton administration understood perfectly well that he was in a position to do so again any time he chose to, since by a conservative estimate at least a million Cubans out of the 11 million on the island would leave if given the opportunity. Some Cuban Miamians and their sympathizers in Congress called for a U.S. naval blockade that would simultaneously prevent further mass migration and--they claimed--finally bring Castro down. Sensibly enough, the Clinton administration, understanding the political risks of further mass migration in an election cycle in which immigration would play a major role, preferred to negotiate with Havana. The result was the worst possible outcome from the perspective of the Cuban exiles. Most of the 22,000 Cubans in Guantánamo would be allowed into the United States (in fact, many from the exodus had already been admitted, despite Attorney General Janet Reno's claim at the time that no one would be), but henceforth all Cuban migrants taken at sea would be returned to Cuba, exactly as was routinely done with Haitians. On May 10, six days after the new policy was announced, 13 Cubans who had been picked up a few days earlier were returned by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter to the Cuban naval base of Bahia de Cabanas, 40 miles from Havana.

The idea that the first element of the American military to dock at a Cuban port would do so not as part of the effort to unseat Castro but in order to return Cuban migrants incensed many in Cuban Miami. "This is a day of infamy for the United States," said Francisco Hernandez, the titular president of the Cuban-American National Foundation. The U.S. military, he added, "have failed in their duty to protect the defenseless and attack the aggressor." The following day, there were demonstrations in Miami, but mostly, among the less politically mobilized, there was a devastating sense of shock. For it was clear that whatever Cubans in South Florida believed, the Clinton administration was declaring that the 36-year-old collaboration between the U.S. government and the Cuban exile community was over. Cubans would be considered an ethnic group, one whose original members had come as political refugees, but whose relatives were immigrants for whom no special treatment would be accorded. In other words, for Washington the exile was over.

Doubtless, there are other shocks to come. The most likely is an increasing effort by American business interests to begin to get the trade embargo loosened. It may well fall on receptive ears. Clearly, the Clinton administration is no longer politically afraid of Cuban Miami. And if there is anything that has marked the administration's foreign policy, it has been its commitment to furthering American trade interests whenever possible. There is no question that many major American corporations have already done feasibility studies and considerable market research for a return to Cuba, and it seems only a matter of time before they begin to put pressure on the administration to make such a return possible.

The gloom and self-criticism that is pervasive in South Florida at the moment may in fact be the beginning of a new realism among Miami Cubans. This is not to say that the dream of return will, or even should, disappear immediately, or that Cuban-Americans will segue from thinking of themselves as a community whose core identity is that of political refugees to that of an American ethnic group. The faith of the exile in the possibility of a mass return to Cuba was always a race against time and mortality. And that actuarial battle, far more important than any ever waged in Washington, is being lost. In any case, it is important that Cuban-Americans confront what a minority within the community has always insisted: namely, that, in reality, it was less that Washington had been swayed by Miami so much as it had been that Washington had used the exile for various Cold War purposes. In any case, the Cold War is over, and, more likely than not, the exile is as well. And this may be as positive a development in terms of Miami as it is in terms of Washington's relationship with Havana, or for that matter, the future of the island itself.

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  • David Rieff is a fellow at the World Policy Institute and author of Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West.
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