saving elian
interview: lisandro perez

picture of lisandro perez

A professor at Florida International University, where he founded the Cuban Research Institute, he was born in Cuba and came to the US with his parents in 1960 when he was eleven. Perez belongs to the so-called "1.5 generation" of Cubans who arrived in the US as children or adolescents.
Explain what the "one-and-a-half generation" of Cuban-Americans means.

...We were not the adults who came from Cuba. We aren't the first generation, because those are our parents. But we're not the second generation either, because we were not only born in Cuba, but we have a memory a childhood in Cuba. So we call ourselves the "one-and-a-half."

How do you differ from other Cubans in America?

We differ in terms of the moment that defined us--that is, the moment we left Cuba--the whole confrontation that was taking place with the Cuban government and that whole struggle of the early 1960s. We've always considered ourselves a younger, newer generation.

Where does the generation stand politically?

It's curious, because there's been a number of my contemporaries who spent almost all of their lives in Miami that pretty much follow a lot of the principal ideas of the Cuban exile community.

Whereas, somebody like me who left Miami for a considerable period of time and got an academic degree, have perhaps a different sort of development. I think a critical differentiating factor in my generation ideologically is whether or not you spent all your life in Miami, or if you spent a lot of your life, particularly your formative years, outside of Miami.

Living outside of Miami exposes you to the fact that there is a different world out there with different ideas about Cuba. There are those of us who left Cuba when we were children in the early 1960s, then entered college in the United States at the time of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War era. So we were exposed to a lot of ideas that were rather counter to the very conservative ideas of our parents' generation.

living outside of miami exposes you to the fact that there is a different world out there with different ideas about cuba. Miami is conservative.

Miami is, in many ways, an exile community. And exile communities, let's say, do not exactly have an objective viewpoint of the homeland they came from. Exile communities tend to always be in opposition to the government of the country that they left, and are always in effect trying to regain the homeland.

The Cuban revolution was embraced by the American left for a long time and by the left all over the world, since it was a socialist revolution. And, of course, that has put Cuban exiles essentially on the right. It has made them conservative. I think the more basic dynamic that's going on is that they are very much in opposition to that government. It's incredible that, in the past 40 years, that sort of exile ideology of regaining the homeland still persists, and it's still a driving force in Miami.

How realistic is it?

Part of the reason that the exile ideology has remained frozen and unchanged is because it's not just unchanged in Miami, but essentially the entire context of Cuba is unchanged. The relationship between the US and Cuba hasn't changed in 40 years. So the Cuban exile community also has remained frozen in time.

What really brought in optimism among Cubans that they would soon regain the homeland, that the Castro government would fall, were the changes in Europe at the beginning of the 1990s. A lot of people here in Miami in 1989-1990 were saying, "In a few months, we'll be back. In a few months, we can travel to Cuba." And I think they haven't quite understood the nature of the Cuban system.

Can you give an overview of the past decades?

I think you can divide the last 40 years exactly into two phases in terms of what's driving US policy towards Cuba. From 1961 to 1980, what was in place was a traditional Cold War sort of ideology of US foreign policy that defined certain governments as being enemies or hostile to the interests of the US.

. . . By the 1980s, however, you have the creation of powerful interests within the Cuban-American community, or at least interests that were able to articulate the position of the Cuban exile community in Washington, especially the Cuban-American National Foundation. Also there were friendly administrations in Washington, of Reagan and Bush, which were viewed as being sort of close to the position of Cuban exiles.

Starting in the 1980s, Cuban exiles take a protagonist role, if you will, a leading role in formulating US policy towards Cuba. Before 1980, there had been actors. They had been agents of the US policy towards Cuba, as epitomized by the Bay of Pigs. But in the 1980s and 1990s, in the absence of anyone else caring about Cuban policy in the United States, Cuban exiles became the principle actors in US-Cuba policy. And I think have, to a very large extent ,remained to this day.

Elián's case seemed to turn into a metaphor for something bigger. . . .

The Elián case tugged at a lot of very deep themes and very underlying themes here the Cuban exile community. First, obviously, is the struggle against Castro. And the very fact that Castro wanted the child back was enough for the Cuban exile community or the leaders here to say, "Well, you can't have him back."

At another level, a basis of this community is that life in this country, in exile, was preferable to living in Cuba. The Castro government has turned Cuba into a hell, according to the way the exiles view it. And if you have that perception, then you want to try to prevent people from going back against their will.

And the exiles were devastated the way it ended.

Overall, I think Cuban-Americans, particularly those who've been active in the struggle against Castro, have sort of been spoiled a little bit by the US government. That is, almost everything the Cuban exiles have asked for in terms of US policy towards Cuba they have gotten. For example, there's Radio Martí and TV Martí--a radio and television station that transmits to Cuba and is paid for by US taxpayers. We want the Torricelli bill passed, which strengthens the embargo. We want the Helms-Burton bill passed, which strengthens the embargo. All those things the US government has given to the Cubans, in part, I think, because most Americans don't care about US-Cuba policy, and therefore they're ready to give that to Cuban exiles.

But to say that we also want this child who has the surviving natural parent in Cuba to stay here because we say so, because we say that he's better off here instead of being reunited with his only natural, remaining parent. . . . That, apparently, was something that the US was unwilling to do, both in terms of public opinion and in terms of the federal government. Many Cuban-Americans were absolutely in shock that this was not granted to them, as many things have been granted. And they were in shock that people apparently did not understand what they were talking about. In many ways, it is the Cuban-American community that did not understand they were really asking for something very unreasonable. For them, it made every sense in terms of the struggle against Castro.

This was a very poor battle for them to pick. It was one that, from the beginning, that they were going to lose. But what happens is that this community frequently does not have the ability for self-criticism and for looking at itself and saying, "Wait a minute, we shouldn't be doing this. Let's not be carried by emotion on this."

Do they know what freedom is?

There's been a real problem, sometimes , in the political behavior of Cuban-Americans, or at least it appears a problem to many. On the one hand, many Cubans espouse democracy, and they say they're here because they want democracy. But then, in many ways, they act here in the United States in ways that are very anti-democratic.

One of the basic concepts that's missing a bit--and it's true also of the generation in Cuba--is that there's been a very long tradition in Cuban political culture to view democracy as the rule of the majority. Certainly Fidel Castro believes he speaks for a majority and that he has a moral cause, just like many leaders in the Cuban exile community believe that they speak for a majority sentiment in the Cuban exile community. They believe that gives them the right to assert their rights over a minority, without realizing that the real secret to a democracy is not so much majority rule as it is the respect of the rights of the political minorities and the respect of the right of dissenting views. And that is the one aspect of democracy that we seem to be missing, both in Cuba and in Miami.

if you talk to the exiles about cuba, instead of using terms like the communist system or the government, they're likely to say fidel castro.  it's a very personalized conflict... And anybody who deals with Castro is evil.

In order to understand some of the dynamics of the Cuban community here and how it functions politically, you have to understand that, in many ways, it's like a small town. The community is economically very strong. It generates a lot of employment, and it generates a lot of business for itself, for its members. And one of the things that you don't want to do is be ostracized on the basis of your political ideology because you disagree with some of the basic tenets of the community.

Some of the basic tenets have to do with anti-Castroism, which is at the very heart of the community. And, of course, the ability of the Cuban community to ostracize people depends a little bit upon what they do. If you're a lawyer or you own a store or you depend upon the community for your business, you are much more likely to be cautious of being labeled a communist or a Castro sympathizer than if you're somebody like me, who has tenure at a university.

More and more people are challenging the tradition of the Cuban exile community, in part because it's become a bit outdated. What's happened, to some extent, with US policy towards Cuba and of the view supported by many in the Cuban exile community of hostility and isolation is that it's become an exhausted model. That model presumably was going to bring some fruit in the early 1990s with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but again, it hasn't happened. The Elián case focused a lot of attention on the Cuban situation and a lot of Americans started asking, "Why don't we change this policy?"

Elián was a spark?

I think the Cuban exiles have had a lot of influence on US policy towards Cuba in the past, because nobody cares in the US; nobody has Cuba on their radar screen. It's possible that most of the chief executives of the Fortune 500 companies would want to change policy towards Cuba and allow commerce with Cuba. But if they had 30 minutes with the president of the United States, they're not going to talk about Cuba. And so there hasn't been a real concerted effort on the part of those people who would favor a lifting of the embargo and new relations started with Cuba.

Whereas for Cuban-Americans, that's their priority. They have lobby organizations. They have a committed congressional group of three Cuban-American congressmen who make that their priority. And so they represent a very dynamic force in favor of keeping US policy. On the other side, you don't have anybody with a lot of weight committed in this country to change US-Cuba policy, and therefore it hasn't changed.

Was Elián a spark for the exhausted?

The impact of Elián has really been a little bit contradictory. On the one hand, the events swirling around Elián have served in many ways to strengthen the hard-liners in Cuba and in Miami. A lot of people in Havana and Miami have been mobilized around the drama of this little boy.

On the other hand, it's also brought to the attention of the world--the larger world outside the hard-liners of Havana and Miami--the fact that this policy is now 40 years old. It hasn't worked. It's a relationship that belongs in the Cold War, and it ought to be changed.

The exiles are sure they're right on this issue.

The inability of Cubans in the United States, and especially in Miami, to see that this whole Elián case has been very bad for their cause is due to an absence of means for self-criticism. The local press plays a great deal to the interests and the views of the Cuban-American community. That's true of the largest newspapers in this city, and it is true of the local television stations. Nobody really challenges in many ways what the Cubans are doing. You see that in the national press, but not in the local press.

The Spanish language radio stations have a tremendous function for reinforcing an exile ideology, and for really whipping people up to do things, and encouraging people to do things that are really quite unreasonable. The Spanish language radio stations function as the gossips in the town square. Nobody really knows them and nobody listens to them directly, but nobody wants to incur their wrath. Nobody wants to be vilified by them, because when they start a rumor it spreads through the entire town.

Why do the exiles view themselves as exiles and not as immigrants?

It's very important to the image of Cuban-Americans to see themselves and for others to see them as exiles, not as immigrants. The term "immigrant" to them denotes the notion of people who come in search of economic opportunities.

Cubans, despite what may be the reality, do have this ideology that they came here because they were in a sense driven out, impelled to leave by a government and by a political system. Therefore they view themselves as exiles. It has nothing to do with whether they will actually go back and live. It has to do with the fact that you need to triumph over the government that compelled you to leave the country and is the source of all this suffering, et cetera.

Part of the emotion that you see among many Cuban exiles is that this is a highly personalized sort of conflict. If you talk to Cuban exiles about Cuba, instead of using terms like "the communist system" or "the government" or anything like, that they're more likely to say "Fidel Castro," It's a very personalized conflict that even finds its way into the laws that the US has written and enacted, which have in part been written by Cuban exiles. The Helms-Burton bill actually says that a precondition for improving US relations with Cuba is that Fidel Castro and Raoul Castro, by first name and last names, have to be out of there.

. . . Emotion is, in many ways, a driving force. It sometimes keeps people--as the Elián case pointed out--from seeing things rationally, or pragmatically. You could make the argument to many people here in Miami that the embargo is helpful to Fidel Castro. It keeps him isolated. It enables him to blame others for his troubles. But people here wouldn't be interested in that. The embargo cannot be understood as a rational, pragmatic measure to overthrow the Cuban government. It has to be understood in emotional terms. If you lift the embargo, for many Cuban exiles, it means Fidel will have won.

And isn't it the same with the Elián case?

Absolutely. From the beginning, it was evident that it was a no-win situation for Cuban-Americans, and a win-win situation for Castro. Yet the Cuban exiles in Miami plunged right into it and gave Fidel Castro this victory.

How do you explain this 40-year conflict between Cubans--the hardliners on both sides of the Florida straits, here in Miami and there in Cuba.

One way to look at what has happened in the last 40 years is ...the generation that spawned the conflict 40 years ago is still in control in Havana, and still in control in Miami. And because they are the same generation, from the same place, the same culture, they have many similarities, including their view of governance, their view of expression and their freedom of expression, their view of political rights in many ways.

What, if anything, can change their views,?

There are two experiences that change Cuban-Americans in terms of their political views. One is to have lived outside of Miami for an extended period of time--being exposed to other views on Cuba and other views on the world.

The other thing that can change your views if you're Cuban-American is to go to Cuba. Not because you come back thinking that the Castro government is great or anything like that--on the contrary. Like anything else, when you view reality firsthand, it's not black and white. You see that the reality is much more complex. You see Cuba as a real place where real people live and try to make their living and struggle in very difficult conditions. And you have a better appreciation for what should be the policy.

In my classes among young Cuban-Americans born in this country, there is this sort of view of Cuba that is mythological. What they hear about Cuba is from what they hear at home. They hear about a place that used to be fabulous, that now is forbidden and that people don't go to it.

Some people have told us the exiles feel guilty that they left.

I don't agree with that. I think that one of the characteristics of Cuban exiles is that they have viewed exile favorably. And by favorably, I mean that it is an important way of showing opposition to the government. For example, there are any number of artists and people who leave Cuba now who haven't denounced the Cuban government. They're not true exiles in that sense, and they're criticized; they have not gone through, in a sense, a crossing of the River Jordan, which exile represents.

This is different from other groups, I might add. For example, the Russian émigrés from the Bolshevik revolution viewed exile as the worst thing that could happen to them, and it was definitely to be avoided. Given the conditions in Cuba or the way Cuban exiles see it, exile is viewed as something that is desirable. There's a lot of questioning of people who live in Cuba, who may have opportunity to leave, but don't leave. And so the only way of really knowing if someone is against the government is if you've left.

So that is how Elián's father was viewed?

That's the way that Juan Miguel González has been viewed. Elián's father has been so roundly criticized and vilified in the Cuban exile community, because having had the opportunity to stay here, he is choosing to go back to Cuba.

Why do they want him here?

Every person who chooses to leave--in a way that challenges Castro, especially if they leave in a dramatic way--is received almost as a hero, because it's a personal victory over Fidel Castro. All we have to see is what happens during the rafter crisis. Cubans here in Miami welcome people escaping from Cuba. The more dramatic, the better--in a helicopter, or in a hijacked plane, or in a raft.

When, as happened in 1980 and in 1994, Fidel Castro says, "Anybody that wants to leave can leave. You can get on the rafts and leave." Then the Cuban exile community says, "Oh no, now we don't want them. If Fidel wants them to leave or if Fidel lets them leave, now we don't want them, because that's Castro's game now."

For several reasons--some of them historical--the leadership of the Cuban exile community has always been one that has greatly used emotion; the emotional community to maintain a policy of hostility and isolation in terms of Cuba. But even more than that, it's been always a message of anti-revolution. Part of the inability of the Cuban exile community to really be an important agent of change within Cuba has been that they have not recognized that a good portion of the Cuban population has a historical commitment to that revolution of 1959--even while they may want to change the current situation, while they may feel that the current government is outdated and is exhausted What happened is that this leadership here decided that it would make a message that was not only anti-Castro, but anti-revolutionary. And I think that that message has very limited utility in Cuba.

A lot of people in Cuba do not want a leadership to come from Miami, for example, saying that they didn't like the process that started in 1959, because a lot of Cubans now in Cuba profited from that process. The Cuban exile leadership here has allowed the Cuban government to be the sole trustee of that historical revolution, which many Cubans fundamentally support. And therefore, that's part of the reason why I think the message of Cuban exiles is very faint in Cuba, because most people in Cuba view them as people who want to return Cuba to pre-1959. That's what the Castro government has told them, but the behavior of Cuban-Americans has reinforced that view.

I was in Cuba in January of this year. Although it probably is the case that a lot of the demonstrations on the streets in Cuba supporting the return of Elián are probably contrived by the government, I think there is a genuine feeling among people in Cuba that the child ought to be returned to his father. It's actually very insulting to tell people that the child cannot come back to live in a country where you live, and that somehow children in Cuba cannot have any kind of happy life or a normal life. I think that's insulting. A lot of people of different ideological persuasions are puzzled by the position of the Miami relatives, by the position of the Cuban exile community. This has genuinely allowed Fidel Castro, again, sort of another victory.

What about the notion that the child belongs to the state in Cuba?

What's been argued here in the Cuban exile community is that raising a child in Cuba is very different from here, and that it's preferable for the child to grow up here.

. . . Ultimately, the issue is that his father lives in Cuba. His surviving natural parent lives in Cuba, and that's where the child should be. I don't know if the Cuban exile community proposed to bring every child from Cuba here, because certainly all those arguments could be made for the other children in Cuba. And obviously that wouldn't be the case. In that sense, the INS has been consistent. The INS never said the child has to go back to Cuba. The INS has said, yes, the child may apply for asylum, yes, the child could be granted asylum, but someone has to speak for him. And the person who speaks for him is the natural surviving parent. It's very difficult for people across the US to find the flaw in that logic. Only in Miami and among Cubans is that logic questioned. People are saying, "No, the child essentially should stay here, because we think this system is superior to the system in Cuba."

Politically, what is and what will be the effect of Elián?

I think the most important consequence of the Elián situation has been a real loss of influence on the part of Cuban-Americans in influencing US policy. A lot of the US has now, because of Elián, focused a bit on Cuba and focused on the role that Cuban-Americans have had in formulating US policy, and may be unwilling in the future to let US policy towards Cuba be determined by Cuban exiles in Miami. Certainly if you look at editorials of newspapers around the country, you can see that that's what they're saying: "Why have we, in effect, let these people in Miami run US-Cuba policy?"

So the Elián case backfired?

From the beginning, Elián was a no-win situation for Cuban-Americans and was a win-win situation for Castro. If the child was returned, he could say it was a victory for the revolution. If the child was not returned, it was yet another injustice of the Americans and of the Miami Mafia, as he calls them. So it was always a win-win situation for Castro. But yet, Cuban-Americans plunged headlong into this and did not think of these consequences.

What about the reactions of the other communities in the Miami area?

Many Cuban-Americans are saying the reason that we lost the struggle of Elián is because the other communities don't understand us. What Cuban-Americans don't understand is that a lot of other communities and people in this country looked at this totally different than the way they did, and found that the position of Cuban-Americans was unreasonable.

I don't think that it was a problem of lack of understanding. It was a disagreement. And for most Americans, this was an issue of whether or not we're going to keep a child here against the wishes of the surviving natural parent. Many Cuban exiles had all these arguments against sending Elián to Cuba because of the system in Cuba, et cetera. But a lot of Americans didn't accept that argument, and many Cuban-Americans were shocked that there hadn't been this sort of understanding.

People are devastated in this community. . . .

There is a lot of emotion here in this community. There's a lot of pain in this community. There are people that have suffered a great deal as a result of the entire Cuban process, people who've lost homes, and people who've lost relatives. What frequently happens is that the Cuban community, as has been demonstrated by the Elián case, acts emotionally. That's fine. . . . But if you attempt to base your actions upon emotion, you're going to do things that are irrational, and people are going to criticize you. What we're seeing now is a backlash against Cuban-Americans, a backlash that doesn't take much in this country to generate. There are a lot of prejudices and racism and anti-immigration sentiments in this country, and it doesn't take a lot of effort to stir those sentiments up.

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Solitary NationApril 22nd