saving elian

(New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000), pp. 22, 24-27(c) 2000 by Robert M. Levine and Moises Asis. Reprinted by permission of Rutgers University Press 1-800-446-9323.

Anti-Batista Cubans in Miami rejoiced when Fidel Castro took over Cuba in January 1959, an event that did not make the front page of the Miami Herald. But in Cuba, patriots who had fought or sympathized with the self-pronounced "Maximum Leader" soon had misgivings. Castro lashed out at those who challenged his policies, purging his own supporters as ruthlessly as he persecuted former Batista officials. Castro's "revolutionary justice" included a judicial system bullied into overturning verdicts of acquittal for Batista sympathizers. In the space of a few months, the revolution's new prime minister, José Miró Cardona, and its new president, Manuel Urrutia, resigned.

Castro's reforms raised working-class wages, lowered working-class rents, and seized the assets of the well-to-do. Within two years, new laws had nationalized all large tracts of agricultural land. All sugar factories became the property of Cuba. According to the second most powerful figure in the new government, Ernesto Che Guevara, "The people want revolution first and elections later." No elections were held.

Before the year was up, nearly thirty-five thousand of "the people" had left the island. The first to leave were those who feared they would be arrested or imprisoned, especially officials of Batista's police, armed forces, and government. "Anticipating disaster, some in these positions had fled in 1958.) Landowners, industrialists, managers, and other employees of expropriated businesses, as well as revolutionaries who had opposed Batista but now saw themselves and the revolution as betrayed, became personae non grata. Almost all of the exiled were highly educated, among them Cuba's most skillful technicians and administrators, and most of them came to Miami. . .

In December 1960, James Baker, the headmaster of Havana's elite Ruston Academy, asked Miami's archdiocese for help getting children out of Cuba. The result was the Peter (or Pedro) Pan airlift. Father Walsh helped arrange the initial flight of two hundred children from Havana to Miami. After Havana's U.S. Embassy closed, Penny Powers, a British nurse who had helped evacuate Jewish children from Germany to London, took over the Cuban end of the operation, which at the beginning was kept secret. Relatives of former Cuban president Ramón Grau San Martín pitched in, along with staff members from various European embassies in Havana. Among other strategies, they sometimes falsified passports to evacuate youths of military age who would have been forced to remain.

That the Pedro Pan flights were permitted at all amounted to a kind of miracle. Once in the United States, the children moved in with foster families in Miami and elsewhere until their families could join them. When the operation ran out of temporary families, the Miami diocese set up five camps around South Florida: Matecumbe (later named Boys' Town), Florida City, Kendall, Jesuit Boy's Home, and St. Raphael. Not all the young people's accommodations were ideal. Matecumbe, near the Everglades, was isolated, and children cried themselves to sleep. Mistreatment was reported in some facilities.

Yet Pedro Pan succeeded overall. In December 1960 and throughout 1961, the airlift brought 14,048 minors from Cuba to the United States. Some would later become well known locally: radio newsman and Miami city commissioner Tomás Regalado, Miami Chamber of Commerce president Armando Codina, singer Willy Chirino, businessman José Badia, and Miami mayor Joe Carollo.

For their part in organizing the airlift, Ramón and Polita Agüero Grau, the nephew and niece of former president Ramón Grau, were imprisoned for years by Cuban State Security Police. Polita Grau was held for fourteen years in a women's prison under harrowing conditions. Prisoners who sympathized with hunger strikers, for example, were savagely beaten and locked in dark cells for months. Ramón Grau spent twenty-three years in prison.

(New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 191. Reprinted with permission.

In 1959, the Cuban Revolution elicited extraordinary popular support. That it left no options to its opponents but jail, death, exile, or silence seemed less compelling then to most Cubans than its promise of a Cuba para los cubanos.

Even when, at the height of the cold war, the revolutionary government turned to the Soviet Union and embraced communism, its nationalist and egalitarian appeals proved stronger for most Cubans than the anticommunism to which they had long subscribed. Rejecting representative democracy, the Cuban leadership established an alternative basis upon which to govern by adopting the model of a single party and combining it with the authority of Fidel Castro and a then-widespread popular support for the revolution.

The leadership's challenge lay in translating that remarkable effervescence into institutions capable of addressing the prosaic endeavors of daily life. Four decades later, the government was farther from meeting that challenge than it was when the revolution was vital. Fidel-patria-revolution became an increasingly hollow formula.

On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture by Louis
A. Perez Jr.
(Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999) Copyright (c) 1999 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

For many the decision to emigrate was made slightly more bearable in the belief that the United States would eventually lose patience with the new order in Cuba and, as so often in the past, intervene to set things right. Their ties to North American ways, their understanding of U.S. behaviors past and present, persuaded them to believe that Washington would rid Cuba of Fidel Castro.

Soler Puig captured these moments effectively in En el año de enero. Hacendado Felipe Montemayor affirms confidently: "Almost all of Cuba is American - the land, the sugar mills. Do you think that anything can be done here without consulting them? Don't be stupid! ... They will not allow this fool to introduce communism here. ... They will not permit it. Forget it! They'll knock it down as if it were a rotten palm tree." In Raoul Fowlers novel En las garras de la paloma (1967), Pepe, whose sugar mill was nationalized, resigns himself to wait: "I am convinced that this will not last much time. Do you think the United States is going to tolerate the seizure of a billion dollars of its properties? No, my friend, absolutely not. The Americans passively endure insults, but when the offense involves property. ..."

Most Cubans who left early expected to return shortly, after the United States had stepped in to return things to the way they used to be. "We arrived in the United States in 1960," Marifeli Pérez-Stable recalled three decades later, "certain that our stay would be temporary." Pablo Medina remembered his arrival in exactly the same terms: "We expected to return in a few months." Similar expectations filled the Pérez Firmat household in Miami: "Soon enough either Cubans would get fed up with the Revolution and overthrow Castro, or the Marines would show up on the Malecón and wrest the government from him. Then we and the thousands of other exiles could return. My father would go back to his almacén, my mother would go back to the house and the rounds of baptisms and birthday parties, the children wold go back to our schools and our tatas (nannies), and we would all pick up where we had left off."

Arcocha's Candle in the Wind captured these moments through his protagonist Vicente: "What happened was a kind of hysteria. Everyone said the Americans were going to invade and it would be the end of the world. Besides, they calculated that their exile would be short. The Americans would come and topple Fidel and they could return as heroes who opposed communism." In Desnoes's El cataclismo, Cristobal assures Cristina on the eve of their departure that "this won't last even six months. It will be nothing more than a trip abroad." In any case, Cristina says, she owned "enough clothing for a couple of years - until the Americans return." In the Machado play Once Removed, Olga imagines "exile" as "an aristocratic city where kings and princesses went, till the hard times were over, before they went back home."

What many Cubans could not have appreciated, of course, was that North American hegemony in Cuba had depended on their presence inside Cuba, those who shared U.S. values and identified with U.S. ways, and who, in defense of their own interests, could be relied on to defend U.S. interests. Emigration guaranteed the internal success of the revolution.

Havana USA by Marea Cristina Garcia
(Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1996), pp. 160-161, 163-164. Reprinted with permission of the University of California Press

In its fight to discredit Castro's human rights record, the emigré community received the most assistance from the Reagan and Bush administrations, in part due to intensive lobbying by CANF, CID, and other exile groups. From 1987 to 1991, the U.S. government tried to have Cuba officially condemned by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. A U.S. delegation traveled to Geneva in March 1987 to present its fourteen-paragraph resolution calling upon the Cuban government to guarantee fundamental freedoms to its citizens and permit the emigration of anyone who wished to leave the country.

Heading the U.S. delegation as special UN ambassador was Armando Valladares. Although Valladares lived in Madrid and spoke little English, the United States had granted him citizenship so that he could represent the U.S. at the Palais des Nations. For several days, Valladares offered firsthand testimony of Cuba's human rights abuses and exchanged insults with the Cuban delegation, which accused him of being a CIA agent. Over a dozen former political prisoners also traveled to Geneva, their trips paid for by CANF and other emigré organizations; although under commission rules they could not testify, they met with delegates in the after hours to show physical scars as proof of the abuses in Cuban prisons.

After almost two weeks of hearings, the Commission on Human Rights voted, 19 to 18, not to debate the U.S. resolution, with six countries abstaining.

... After the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, many political observers gave the Castro government only a few more months before it, too, fell; but the Cuban government defied the odds. In 1990, in an effort to speed up democratic reforms on the island, Cubans both on the island and in Miami began to call for a national dialogue (including the emigrés) to determine the country's future. Although Castro continued to insist that Cuba would never abandon Marxism, the reformers believed that the time was right to sit down with Cuban officials and negotiate for democratic reforms, perhaps even for multiparty elections.

The chief proponent of the dialogue was the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, a Havana-based dissident group headed by Gustavo Arcos Bergnes, a former member of the July 26th Movement who had served more than ten years in prison for human rights activities.

In the Land of Mirrors: Cuban Exile Politics in the United States by
Maria de los Angeles Torres
(Ann Arbor, Mich.: The University of Michigan Press, 1999) Reprinted with permission.

The author's views on how the end of the Cold War affected the exiles.

While the raison d'être for exile had not changed - in fact, repression was increasing on the island - the symbolic place that Cuban exiles had held in U.S. policy was gone. When the United States was at war (albeit a cold war) with the former Soviet Union, refugees coming to the United States demonstrated to the world that the U.S. political and economic system was better than others.

The special place once assigned to Cuban refugees in the United States was not due to Cuba's lack of democracy but was a function of a world power struggle between two empires. (If democracy had been the primary concern, refugees of the Batista regime in the 1950s would have been treated as heroes in the United States. They were not; in fact, many were "illegal aliens" who lived in constant fear of deportation.) When the Soviet Union collapsed, the context that gave meaning to the symbolism of the Cuban exile had collapsed as well.

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