saving elian
interview: francisco aruca

picture of Francisco Aruca

Now considered a moderate Cuban-American, Aruca conspired against the revolutionary government in Cuba in the late 1950s, and was sentenced to jail. After escaping he came to the U.S. In 1979, Aruca founded Marazul Tours, a travel agency that provides service to Cuba. He also is a radio commentator on Miami's Radio Progreso.
Was there resistance when you set up your radio station?

Yes, from the moment we opened our offices in Miami, in 1986, we felt the pressure--there is no doubt about it. There is a segment of the exile community that I call the evil industry, which is very involved in preventing anything that resembles normalization with Cuba. Our offices have been bombed, the windows broken and so forth. So from day one up to this moment, we are feeling pressures from doing that business here. It goes with Miami.

Does it?

Oh, yes, it goes with Cuban Miami. Whoever wants to do something normal with Cuba in Miami, even if it is legal and it is ethical, would have to be willing to pay a price, unfortunately.

You went from being arrested by the revolution in Cuba to being a moderate. What's it been like?

I would say that being a moderate in Miami is difficult, because they are really very radical when it comes to Cuba. I was educated by the Catholic Jesuits in Cuba. I was very much of an anti-communist. However, I was a bit to the left of center--always was. When I came to the United States and studied at Georgetown, it was the first time in my life that I could freely research whatever issue I wanted, and without social pressures. It was the first time in my life that I really enjoyed a free environment. I didn't enjoy that with the Jesuits or the years I lived in Cuba. And I came to the realization that the best thing that could happen to Cuba was not for us to keep on fighting against it, but to see how we could contribute to create a situation that would allow it to change. And therefore I became a very strong defender of dialogue.

Do you remember when Elián first arrived?

The first thing I heard about Elián was that, even before he got out of the hospital, the Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF) had already made a poster out of him. The CANF planned to send those posters to Seattle, where the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) was taking place, and use that poster as propaganda against the Cuban side. During the first few days, the whole line that was being explained or fed was that that would be decided in the local court. After that, it became fairly well established that it was a federal issue. And from the very first day, what I realized was that these sectors of the Cuban exile community have bought into this case fully--and I think very much to their regret, by now.

this is a very un-american city, [miami], you better understand that. Why do you think they bought into this?

Even before they knew anything about the child, they were already making a political poster out of him. Basically they saw this is a great occasion to humiliate the Cuban government. They thought they were going to get a local court to handle it and decide in their favor. And they went lock, stock and barrel into the issue. By the time they realized they were getting deeper and deeper, I think it was too late and they just kept making it worse. If you analyze the whole process, it was a sequence of mistakes--some mistakes worse than the ones they had made before--until they had no hope.

How did the idea of sending the poster to the WTO originate?

It was just to be used as propaganda against Cuba. Basically, the message was that even children with their mothers are leaving Cuba and risking their lives. It was a political message they wanted to convey that they thought would be detrimental to whatever Cuba was trying to accomplish during the WTO meeting.

What was the point?

At the time, remember that Castro was expected to attend, although he eventually didn't. So I think they intended to have, first, a personal humiliation for Fidel Castro, but also a political message against whatever Cuba was trying to accomplish at that meeting. They would be able to portray a child whose mother had died, who risked their lives trying to get to freedom. And they probably felt Fidel Castro would feel very uncomfortable with that.

You don't think it has anything to do with trying to live in freedom?

I must confess that I do not believe very much whenever these Cuban exiles talk about freedom in Cuba or anywhere else, because they have used their power in Miami to accomplish everything except freedom for everybody in Miami. There is no freedom of expression within the Cuban community. The few free expressions freely expressed here through the media usually have come at a high risk, and usually through very specialized efforts to get some type of commercials to back it up. Whenever they talk about diversity of opinion, democracy or freedom, they don't mean it. Basically, what they have done is eliminate the American Constitution from Miami.

In which way?

They have violated some of the most important principles guaranteed by the Constitution, that is, freedom of expression. Even today, if you analyze the Nuevo Herald, which is the daily Spanish paper in the city, you will find that in their editorial pages they don't have a single columnist that writes an opinion different from what the traditional exile position is. And when you're talking about a newspaper in the United States, if you can be as categorical as I am being, that means that they have managed to smash public opinion here quite a bit.

Is it the same with Ordinance 101?

In a way, it's something similar. They managed to have an ordinance approved at City Hall that would prevent any kind of relationship between public funds or public property and anything that had to do with Cuban athletes, Cuban artists, or any company that might have cooperated with Cuba. For all practical effects, nobody could come here with a show, an exhibition, or a sports game if Cuba had any kind of link to it. They couldn't come here and expect any kind of public support. And it cost us millions, in terms of events that have had to move to some other areas because they couldn't be done here in Dade County.

What was the rationale?

They would support anything in Miami that, in their opinion, creates an obstacle to normal relations with Cuba. That has been their traditional position. That is why I refer to their position as a philosophy or theory of total isolation. Somehow they have created an alternative Cuba here. They need that in order to prosper. Consequently, if anything violates that total isolation they wish to maintain with Cuba, they're going to try to achieve it. We have more than one million Cubans living in Dade County, and I dare you to go through all the radio stations in Spanish and see if you find any one of them playing music from Cuba, which is absurd.

But it's all about Cuba?

They use Cuba as a political thesis behind which they hide, in order to amass more and more power here. They have enough support behind them to elect politicians. Those politicians give them contracts, so they can make more money. When they make more money they can contribute more to elect more politicians. That is why I call them an industry. They have created here a very complex situation.

The polls that have been taken by very prestigious institutions in south Florida, such as Florida International University and University of Miami, have all shown that only a very small percentage of Cubans in Miami would go back to Cuba even if Fidel Castro wasn't in power. The last figure I recall was something like 20-25 percent, not more than that. So that theory has become more of an excuse behind which to hide and contribute to their own development, their own political power and their economic development, economic growth.

Can you talk about a the obsession they have about Fidel Castro.

Fidel Castro is a very easy target for them to personalize the issue. What serious effort have you seen from the exile community to overthrow Fidel Castro in the last ten years? The last efforts they have had are legislative efforts, such as the Torricelli bill or Cuban Democracy Act, the Helms-Burton Act. All that was taking place at a time that the Soviet bloc had collapsed. They'd really expected that Cuba would collapse. They always said Cuba is a satellite of the Soviet Union. Well, once the planet disappeared, you don't expect the satellite to go around by itself. So they invested in those pieces of legislation, hoping to perfect the embargo that was already in place, in order to create an upheaval in Cuba, and eventually a coup d'état. Once that didn't happen, eventually they concentrated more and more in preserving their power here and increasing their power here.

Explain Elián.

They want to humiliate Fidel Castro whenever they can. That builds their power here. If they had managed to have Elián's case decided by local courts and they won, they would have shown that the Cuban community in Miami is still invincible--"whenever we pick up an issue, we win." And that is why they're in so much trouble now, because this was the first serious issue that they lost.

What is the Elián story about?

What happened with Elián was months of this issue building up. A high percentage of that type of exile, mind you, has a very low level of education. In that way, they're a very good reflection of what Cuba was before the revolution, educationally. So these are people that have been kept in a fairly high level of ignorance, who are easily moved by emotional arguments. Obviously many of them have suffered because of the Cuban process, but you put all that together and you get . . .

Castro is the eternal enemy?

For some of the exiles, yes, of course. He's going to be their eternal enemy until they die. That's the way they see it, no doubt about it. Back in 1978, Fidel Castro even tried, for the first time, to change policy in relations to Cubans in the United States, and he carried out what was known as the dialogue sessions. He invited Cubans from the United States to come and dialogue and find a solution, for example, to release political prisoners, or to allow Cubans from the United States to travel to Cuba. Immediately, all those who, one way or the other, thought that that was an answer were called traitors in Miami. I was in Miami at the time, and I can tell you that the businesses were bombed, and people lost their jobs. Professional people who were established in very prosperous businesses lost those opportunities because of the social pressures. When it comes to smashing opposition, this is a very un-American city--you better understand that.

from the moment they started realizing the federal government was not going to invade cuba and overthrow the government, they started practicing terrorism in miami. What would the local courts do for them?

They say that that case should have been solved at the family court, here in the state of Florida or in Dade County. And actually, they managed to have one local court make a decision, and it was in their favor. It was found immediately afterwards that the judge who made that decision had a conflict of interest. She had been elected through the efforts of the guy who was acting as the coordinator and spokesman for all these forces that wanted to keep Elián in Miami. Unfortunately, local courts here are elected. When you want to be elected, you need a lot of money for your campaign.

What did you think of Lázaro [Elian's great uncle in Miami]?

I really never thought that the federal government was going to give up on implementation of the law just because Lázaro González and another bunch of Cubans keep believing that the law isn't going to be applied in Miami. I think they misread the whole issue. From the very beginning, they didn't realize this became a very important issue. A very high percentage of American public opinion was behind the legality. For the first time, these people who have been untouchable had against them the law, public opinion, and the stated objective of the federal government. In my opinion, that had to be solved the way it had to be solved. As a matter of fact, I'm one of those who believed that it probably should have been solved sooner. But I wasn't surprised by the federal action--believe me, I was not.

Why were they surprised?

Because it is the first time as far as I can recall. . . . I laugh because, I suppose, for many of the people in your audience, this is going to be weird. These people have never felt the pressures as a group, as a political organization, as a social effort, as an industry--which is what they are. They never really lost a battle here. They are above the law. Some of the companies that are linked to that industry have been investigated now for three years on corruption charges, and we're still waiting for the results. So these people really enjoyed a tremendous amount of impunity. When they saw that happen, the world collapsed on them. And I think it's been a terrific lesson. The Elián case marked the beginning of the unraveling of that industry.

What do you mean by "the industry?"

The "evil industry" is what I call the segment of the Cuban exiles that has tremendous control of media, money, and politicians. It's a very complex apparatus.

When happened when you saw Reno come here?

I developed a tremendous respect for that lady, although I disagree in the slowness of the actions. That lady really tried to do what she thought was right, in very difficult conditions. And she even put herself in a position of coming to Miami and being called all kind of names, and facing all the opposition that she faced here, even though she is a very prestigious daughter of Dade County. I think the attitudes taken by a segment of the Cuban community in relation to Janet Reno shows to what degree the defense of a narrow agenda can take some to even badmouth a person that Florida should be proud of.

They are disrespectful of Clinton and Reno?

They are disrespectful of any personality, anywhere in the world, that disagrees with their thesis. The moment you get away from their thesis, you are considered an enemy and they become steamrollers. They want to roll all over you, simple as that.

So much for freedom.

[Yes],I keep saying that whenever they use freedom as a reason to do something, I laugh.

But they let the father,Juan Miguel, come to Miami?

I really wouldn't know. They never thought he would come. One of the things that kept happening throughout the Elián González process is that they would ask for things, thinking that they would not happen. And once they happened, they would have to turn around and find another argument. Specifically, in the case of Juan Miguel González, at first they said, "Let him come to this country." When they started to perceive that maybe he was going to come, they started saying, "Let him bring the family." When he came with the family, they said, "Let him bring them to Miami." Maybe the next thing they would have said is, "Let him parade down Eighth Street and let us throw eggs at them."

Their basic objective here was not to have the father take his son back with him to Cuba. Their basic objective is for that child to stay. If the father had come and decided to stay in the United States, that would have meant a huge coup. The moment they started to realize that Juan Miguel does not have an intention of staying here, they started calling him all kind of names. He's simply "Castro's agent." It's ridiculous.

Or else they believe that he's not free to decide for himself?

Except that it's very difficult to believe. By now, we know that any Cuban who wishes to stay in the United States, as soon as he has one foot on dry land, all he has to say is "I want to stay" and he'll stay. So I'm pretty sure that Juan Miguel González knows that as well as any Cuban, both in Cuba and Miami. So I have to assume that he's freely deciding he wants to go back to his country with his child.

And some think that Greg Craig--Juan Miguel Gonzalez's attorney--works for Castro.

They're full of conspiratorial theories. You're never going to stop them from being conspiratorial. Juan Miguel González has been talking by himself to the attorney general of the United States. What better opportunity? You just open your mouth there and say, "Madam Attorney General, basically what I want to do is to stay in this country." And that would have ended the game right there. I think they're finding this case extremely hard to crack, precisely because they were convinced that that man would never come to the United States. It really shattered all their plans and all their explanations.

And the grandparents are there. . . .

Who were here before. (laughs) When the grandparents were here, they called them all kinds of names, because of their behavior and because they decided to go back. In a way, it's a bottomless pit. If you ever expect to satisfy the desires of the fanatic, you're going to die frustrated. And that's what we're dealing with here--a bunch of fanatics.

. . . Did they want the father to defect, or the child to stay?

They needed the child, in the sense that they have fought that battle from the very beginning. So the first objective was to see if the child stays. Even before they perceived that the father was coming, they were claiming that they would give the child up immediately if the father comes to the United States. They were convinced that if he did, he was going to stay. It's as simple as that.

Of course, their conclusion is that nobody freely wants to live in Cuba. In that sense, they are as far away from reality as in many other topics. There are Cubans who wish to abandon Cuba and there are many Cubans who wish to stay in Cuba. The estimates I have read or heard give as many as two million Cubans may want to leave Cuba, but Cuba has eleven million people. So it's still a very large number. I don't know how many Mexicans or Dominicans want to leave Mexico, but I'm pretty sure the majority of Dominicans and Mexicans are happy living in their country, even though it may not be in the best of material conditions. Which just shows that these anti-communists have become extremely materialistic, because the bottom of their argument is pro-materialism.

Does freedom play any role?

I don't really believe that freedom played any role whatsoever here. It was a battle for a political objective--that is to humiliate Cuba. It was a political investment, badly planned, badly carried out. Instead of providing a heck of a lot of profit for them, it's provided them a lot of defeats. I have to say that those who lead this evil industry, this segment of the exile community--they do not believe in freedom. They have not practiced freedom in the United States. Why would they be expected to practice freedom anywhere else, including in Cuba?

And what about the rest of the Cubans in south Florida?

They supported their position. The means of communication in Miami do not inform them properly. In relation to anything that has to do to Cuba, they are making decisions solely based on false or incomplete information. That is part of what my program does. I say, "You were told one thing this morning by the Nuevo Herald. And this is what the Herald said in English, and it's two different versions. So these people have been manipulated in their ignorance. For a series of reasons, I don't deny that behind that evil industry is an important segment of public opinion from the Cuban-American community.

Is public opinion a big part of this?

It's very difficult to say, although I wouldn't have any problem in saying that in general, over 50 percent of the Cubans in Miami favor the embargo and favor a policy of isolation in relation to Cuba. The number is decreasing, and one of the reasons is as the older guys are dying. But I wouldn't be surprised if the majority still feel that way. Beware of polls along those lines here. With Cubans, we're always a little bit paranoid, but we have become even more paranoid in Miami. And no Cuban is going to tell you the truth in a telephone interview, if that truth may be found out by people who defend the thesis of isolation in relation to Cuba. He will be paying a high price, and they're not suicidal.

It's astonishing.

It is unbelievable what they have managed to accomplish. The unfortunate fact is that this was accomplished at the beginning of the 1960s with the help of the federal government. This became a foreign policy objective in relation to what was going on in Cuba. And they were granted all kind of immunities and privileges from the very first day, because that was the interpretation of national interest at the time. Although we might disagree, the consequences were that this group, who was already very well-trained to succeed in capitalism--because they had already been successful in capitalism in Cuba--got totally supported and totally financed by the federal government for quite a few years. So in a way, the conditions of the time helped create a monster that has kept on increasing its power, even after US policy in relation to Cuba started to change.

How has the US policy changed?

The Cuban revolution took power in 1959. A portion went socialist--went communist. Immediately it became a danger to US national objectives, at least as they were defined at the time. And Cuban exiles became a very important instrument of that policy against the Cuban revolution. Consequently, Cuban exile groups in Miami started receiving all kinds of help and protection from the federal government. So some of the characteristics that you are seeing today were developed with the assistance of the federal government in the early 1960s.

Except that the policy changed. As circumstances changed, the federal policy kept changing. But these guys would not change. The opposite. Now they are challenging the federal government in almost any area they see fit. They challenged them against Elián; they are already calling the Supreme Court all kinds of names here. Their objectives have nothing to do with the welfare of the Cuban people, the welfare of south Florida, or the welfare of the United States. Their objectives are to increase their power, their profit, and tremendous influence that they have developed here in south Florida. That is their objective.

Their objective isn't to topple Fidel Castro?

That's a secondary thing. If it happens, they'll be very happy. Imagine all the power they have accomplished here without taking over Cuba. Imagine the level of power they would have if they take over Cuba with two million Cubans in Florida.

What would be the consequences?

You would have a tremendous amount of power in the hands of persons who don't even believe in democracy in the first place. What happens if they decide to go ahead and join the drug industry in order to make profits? How do you stop them if they control government, the government in Cuba? Something similar to what the Mafia tried to do with the Batista government in the 1960s could happen if they took power in Cuba. I don't know what their limits are, because they're limitless in terms of their ambition. They have proven that.

But you wouldn't be sitting here if they were that malevolent.

They have tried, so maybe the conclusion is that I'm lucky. But they have tried.

They've tried to kill you?

Oh, yes, at least the police have told me several times to watch out. I don't think they're good people at all. Go to the early 1970s and you're going to see political assassinations in Miami. People were killed in 1971-1972 for saying even less than what I'm saying now. There's a guy who was shot to death after visiting his son in the hospital--I think it was 1972--because he said at the time that our policy in relation to Cuba is wrong and we need to start a dialogue. They shot him. They killed him. The same thing with another guy who used to manufacture boats here in the early 1960s, in the early 1970s. So we're not talking about people that have not proven their capacity to kill political opponents.


They killed him financially. (laughs) Bernardo they didn't kill physically, but from everything I know, they killed Bernardo financially, precisely because Bernardo participated in that dialogue that I mentioned in 1978. They never forgave him for that. And he was a very well-respected executive of a bank here. They ruined his career.

It's astonishing.

Well, welcome to Miami. It is astonishing.

If you allow me to say something positive, we're changing. We are improving. They are losing power, and Elián's case has helped a lot. The real miracle is that out of this tragedy, these people are losing power. And that is extremely good for everybody concerned--the Cuban people, all of us in south Florida, Cuban and non-Cubans alike, and even American national interests.

Some say you need the approval of the Cuban government to sustain your business.

Well, I would say it's the opposite. I went into business precisely because I wanted to find a legal way to establish connection with Cuba. I really believed in that. Secondly, the day that total relations are established in Cuba, our business position is going to find it extremely tough to survive. We will be competing in a totally open market with the best American travel operations. And even though I have enough confidence, it's going to be a tough, very tough game. So if I were thinking of my personal welfare or the welfare of my company, I would be very satisfied in prolonging the embargo policy for a few more years.

You've appeared on television in Cuba?

Yes. It isn't acceptable to the exiles in Miami but, of course, it was totally unacceptable that I started my radio program to start with. The fact that I appear on Cuban TV should be taken hand in hand with the fact that other persons of the moderate world in Miami are appearing. That is maybe also part of the miracle of Elián. It has also helped open doors within Cuba. Cuba has become more flexible, as far as their policy on communication and media, precisely because of this affair. So Cuba has also benefited from this affair, and so have the Cuban people.

Did you start appearing on Cuban TV during the Elián case?

That is correct. I had appeared once on Cuban television. But the first time they interviewed me live on a Cuban TV program was during the Elián case.

And it opened doors?

Oh, it has opened doors. And you are probably going to interview some leaders of the moderate community here in Miami who portray themselves clearly as opposition to the Cuban government and they have been interviewed on Cuban TV.

What about the civic/business leaders' negotiations with the U.S. government in the final days ?

You must relate it to the previous effort that had taken place just a few days before. For the first time, the Cuban-American National Foundation had been identified as agreeing to set up a meeting in Washington, D.C. It was to be at the Vatican embassy between the relatives in Miami with Elián and Juan Miguel, his father, and his lawyer in Washington, where the child was going to be left with his father. And they could not deliver. The relatives changed their mind. Some other conservative forces, but obviously more moderate than the people of the Foundation, said, "We need to take over." And that is when you had a group of conservative persons of the exile business world join in as intermediaries. They came in too late, and they came in hoping that their mere presence was going to make the federal government stop. Obviously, they failed. The government was not going to stop that late in the game.

Did they almost come to an agreement?

It has been clearly proven afterwards, with all the information that came out, that they were not close to an agreement at all in the last few hours. They were convinced that the federal government, and Janet Reno particularly, had been looking for a way out of this. They felt their presence was so important that the federal government was going to step back. And they didn't realize that it was too little, too late.

What about the raid?

First of all, I really believed that there was no other choice. Those people were not going to hand over the kid. It was totally justified. And it was carried out in a very professional manner. The press has reported that the forces around that house and inside of that house had set up a very complex operation that included intelligence mechanisms, so they would know when the federales were coming. So it was a very active operation, including the participation of Cuban radio stations here. Many of these exiles have had military training, all kinds of training from the time they were working for the CIA. They knew how to organize, and they had organized precisely to prevent the federal government from acting.

Some believe that they should have been given a warrant.

I don't think they would have given them the child. As a matter of fact, the agent did knock on the door and waited. I don't remember now if it was 15 or 20 seconds, but he waited a few seconds, and knocked again. And by that time they had placed a sofa behind the door. Particularly where that house was located, which was in the heart of Little Havana, as soon as the radio station starts saying, "The federales are coming, the federales are coming," you're going to have hundreds of Cuban exiles jumping onto that house.

They say they are not violent.

That is a total lie, and a negation of the history of Miami. I invite you to go to the records, particularly in the early 1970s. From the moment they started realizing that the federal government was not going to invade Cuba and overthrow the government, they started practicing terrorism in Miami. In the early 1970s, you are going to find that in a period of less than five years, close to 100 bombs went off in Miami, including at the FBI office. The bombs were placed by Cuban exiles who felt betrayed by the American government. People who were promoting a dialogue with the Cuban government were assassinated. If anything, the path of this segment of the exile community has been a very violent path in Miami.

Do you feel secure today?

Well . . . I feel fine. I have taken risks all of my life. I'm probably going to keep on doing that. I believe in what I'm doing. And I feel better today. I feel more secure today than I felt two or three years ago. By now, our position has become much more legitimized, much more supported. Therefore, the more that happens, the more expensive it is for them to take actions against me. So I feel more secure now than I felt two years ago.

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