saving elian
interview: max castro

picture of max castro

He is a senior research associate at the University of Miami's North-South Center. Castro is also a regular columnist for The Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald (Miami), and La Opinión (Los Angeles).
Why do you think Elián was such a big story for the community?

The Cuban-American community was looking for some sign that change was imminent. It's 40 years of frustration--seeing every country that had gone through a dictatorship have a transition. The Cuban-Americans have done quite well in the United States. They live very close to their homeland. And yet they are very far from their homeland and their aspirations.

And then, enter Elián. . . .

Elián comes and he enters in a very, very interesting way. There are all kinds of possible references to biblical stories, to Cuban religious references. He seems to be announcing something, announcing the beginning of the end, perhaps, of the Cuban regime. And people take it as a sign of hope. That hope is also manipulated by people who have political ends--people who would like to see a situation like this become a bone of contention between the Cuban and US governments, and derail the very modest trend towards relaxation that has characterized US-Cuba relations in the last couple of years.

The Elián affair has the combined character of a religious revival and a political crusade, and that's a very powerful combination. It's so powerful that it drew a lot of people who normally would not join these kinds of battles into its wave. Many people that I have discussed issues rationally with seem not to be able to talk about this issue without injecting a tremendous amount of emotion, personal experience, and the like into it.

Why do you think that happens?

In some way, people identified with this child. People felt that if this child is returned to Cuba, it means that the exile image of Cuba as the ultimate absolute hell is not validated. One doesn't send anyone back to a concentration camp, to a slave plantation. That is how Cuban-Americans tend to portray and view the Cuban situation. In stark, black versus white, absolute Manichean terms.

To them, what happens if the US government sends Elián back to Cuba?

If the American government sends Elián back, it is thereby saying that this angel can be sent back to the devil. The American government that condemns the Cuban government on human rights issues nevertheless is saying that this is a relative dictatorship, this is a relative hell, not an absolute hell. And that contradicts the exile view.

In a post-communist world where Marxist-Leninism has imploded as an ideology the exiles often end up looking more authoritarian, more out of touch than the Cuban regime. Is that why they're devastated?

The devastation that many exiles feel after the raid by the US government relates to the kind of love-hate relationship the exiles have always had with the United States. The exiles very much want to be accepted and loved by the US government. Coming to the US was a choice; it was saying to Castro, "No, the Americans are not our enemies. We're going to go to the United States because they're our allies." And the exiles feel that the United States government has been less than an ally, starting with the Bay of Pigs, and ending with the Elián affair. It's a very heartrending and pathetic story, in a sense. It takes on more the character of unrequited love than the normal inter-ethnic battles that you see in this country.

Is there anti-Americanism from the history of invasion?

There is a very interesting and maybe twisted nationalism in the hard-core, hard-line exile community. They, of course, have felt disparaged at times by Americans, by Anglo-American culture that tends to look down on Latin or Latino culture. That has been tempered by the fact that the exiles saw the United States as their ally, the place where democracy reigns, the anti-communist bastion in the world.

So this kind of tension has always existed. But as the exiles got to know the United States and experienced perhaps some discrimination as well as some favorable treatment here, their experience has become even more contradictory, and so their feelings have as well.

After the raid to pick Elián up, do Cuban-Americans feel safe?

Many people are identifying with Elián. So if Elián can be wrested from this Little Havana home, perhaps they can be also deported to Cuba. That, I think, is a very, very distorted view of what happened with Elián. It borders on the paranoid. But it is a kind of collective thing, the kind of emotion, the kind of revival type thinking that appeared here on the Elián issue.

Can you talk about the way in which the Cuban American exiles view their struggle--the way in which it is a about the meaning of what it is to be Cuban?

There is a Cuban national identity that precedes the Castro revolution. In many ways, both sides--communist and anti-communist--are fighting over what is the true national legacy. Unlike the Soviet Union, which developed a new flag after the revolution, the Cuban revolution maintained the Cuban flag as it existed before. The national anthem was maintained. Jose Marti continued to be venerated as a hero. And so the Cuban exiles also have maintained those symbols and those references. It's really not contradictory. Cuba doesn't have a legacy like the Soviet Union--czars and so forth. Cuba was a republic--albeit in the official version, a colonized republic or a semi-colony--but it did have a government, and it did have a fight for national independence. So the Cuban communist government does not ignore that. It has tried to integrate that into its own ideology. And the exiles, of course, have their ideology, in which everything that happened since 1959 is a disaster.

Why are they considered exiles, and not immigrants?

Whether you're an exile or an immigrant is a subjective thing. In the Cuban case, there was, at the outset, a very strong political element to the migration. People defined themselves as exiles, that is, they felt that they would go back to Cuba. Now they are, for the most part, not exiles in the strict traditional sense because they were not put on a plane and sent out. They felt that the political situation in Cuba and the system in Cuba didn't leave any space for them. It didn't leave any space for their political ambitions. It didn't leave any space for their economic ambitions.

What about the contradictions in the story of Elián's rescue?

There are many, many unknowns and contradictory versions of what happened with Elián. There are quasi-mystical versions with the dolphins taking a role. There's a conflict between the versions of the two men that were on the boat that picked up Elián. And there are conflicts in the story about how the other two survivors reached US shores. This is a tale that resembles the Japanese movie, Rashomon.

What do you think happened?

I really have great doubts about the mystical stories of the dolphins. I think it is a case of survival. We don't have any evidence that it's anything but that. But I think we need to look at this as a child, and not a symbol or some kind of a mystical apparition.

Didn't the child, Elián, get lost in all of this?

It seems that the child became a flag to be waved, first in Miami and then in Havana. The child--his interest--was something everybody talked about, but you had to wonder at times whether people really cared. When you put a child on a video, when you parade a child who's recently lost his mother, you have to have grave doubts as to the judgment of the people who are doing that and their motivations.

Politically, how was Elián used?

The first political use of the child was the Cuban-American National Foundation meeting. They used a picture of the child to develop a poster that they were going to take to Seattle, Washington, in the event that Fidel Castro would attend the meetings of the World Trade Organization. This preceded any conflict over the child's staying in the United States, or the custody of the child. Later, other Cuban-American political figures weighed in and covered the child in the American flag, et cetera. At some point very soon, the Cuban government, informed that Juan Miguel González wanted his child back, saw a golden political opportunity, and began to rally the Cuban population, which is very tired of rhetoric and is very weary of the hardships. But this was the one thing that could rally many people to say, "This is a national cause. This is a Cuban cause. The exiles don't just want to get . . . Fidel Castro. The exiles want to get the average Cuban who is walking down the street and has a child--Juan Miguel González." So Elián allowed the government to make that case with some effectiveness, and also to distract from the problems that exist in the country.

Some say that Castro became possessed with this case.

Some people have seen in this a real personal element for Fidel Castro, in that he had a struggle with his former wife over custody of his son, Fidelito. Castro ultimately prevailed in that struggle, but this may explain why he has taken such a personal, or perhaps obsessive interest in this case.

And the political element?

The political component in this is key. Public opinion in the United States, in the US government itself, in international public opinion, and in the Cuban Catholic Church have all ended up on the same side as the Cuban government. This is a real tour de force and a real political opportunity. How often is it going to happen that the attorney general of the United States and the Cuban leader are going to be on the same side against conservative forces in the Cuban exile community, in the US Congress, and in the administration?

How much did this Elian saga help Castro?

The timing was very opportune for the Cuban government. There had been a summit in Havana that didn't go very well. Dissidents were becoming more visible. Even the vaunted Cuban sports machine was having problems with doping and defections. So Elián really was a very opportune situation.

And Castro ran with it . . .

Fidel Castro read the chessboard and the exiles overplayed their hand. He has been chasing them all over the board and putting them in difficult positions from that time on.

The Elian affair has the combined character of a religious revival and a political crusade, and that's a very powerful combination.  It's so powerful, it drew people who normally would not join these kinds of battles into its wave. What have been the consequences of this Elian story?

The defeat of the hard-line forces has isolated them in Miami from other communities and in the United States, to some degree. However, US policy is still made in Washington, D.C., and money and political organization still counts a lot. The Helms-Burton law nailed in very strongly many elements of that policy. There doesn't seem to be a political will by either of the presidential candidates to do anything to change Cuban policy. So the game may have changed somewhat, the momentum may have changed, but we'll still have to see if the score is going to change.

And what about those who think there was a conspiracy?

Conspiracy theories are the stuff of Cuban political thought in exile and to some extent, on the island, too. This was a ready-made situation for conspiracy theories. I mostly discount the theories that Juan Miguel Gonzalez' attorney, Fidel Castro, and Bill Clinton formed some kind of a hidden triangle, trying to remake US-Cuba policy. But people in general, and Cubans in particular, don't like to believe that things happen in that way. We don't want to believe that a president of the United States can be killed by a crazy individual, by one single fool with a gun. We don't want to believe that these things could happen around Elián without some kind of a dark conspiracy. We don't want to believe that it's just simply a matter of immigration law and policy and a determined attorney general. We want to see all kinds of other layers in this.

What is your view of the way the US government handled this?

I think Reno wanted to exhaust every possibility to bring a non-confrontational end to this. If you look at what eventually happened and how much criticism there was, had there not been this very solicitous position from the US Justice Department, public opinion in the end would not have been so favorable to the attorney general and the administration. At the time, I thought, the Justice Department--which is the scourge of drug dealers and puts Bill Gates to rout--is negotiating with these people that don't have a legal leg to stand on. [But] itt may have been relatively smart political action--laying the groundwork for the tough action that was taken at the end.

Were the Cuban Americans naïve to think they could succeed in this battle?

Cuban-Americans have obtained so many unlikely things from US governments: an invasion of Cuba; an embargo that everybody in the world opposes; a television station that costs American taxpayers millions of dollars a year and no one in Cuba can see. They have this lovely, angelic child as a symbol of democracy and they have been able to cast the issue about Fidel, not about Juan Miguel. Why shouldn't they think that they can prevail, when they have the candidates of both political parties essentially agreeing with them?

They did think that they'd prevail.

They miscalculated. There were certain variables in this equation that were new or different. There were legal considerations. There was an attorney general with tremendous backbone. There was a president who doesn't have to run for office again. There's a weakened hard-line exile community after the death of the main leader, Jorge Mas Canosa. All these factors led to the defeat [of the hard-line forces in the Elian affair.

Why have they gotten so many things?

The irony is that exiles do feel betrayed, and yet they have received preferential treatment on many occasions and in many ways. The origin of all of this is in the Cold War and the fact that the exiles are a relic of the Cold War. The US government launched the Bay of Pigs invasion and put the exiles on the beaches there. Some promises made to the exiles were offered by some of the trainers and other people involved. The exiles feel that those promises were not kept. The exiles are claiming that the US portrayed itself as the ally of the exiles in the anti-communist struggle, induced the exiles to join the battle at the Bay of Pigs and join the battle against communism, and then the United States abandoned that battle.

It's like being called on to a crusade and then having the main convener of the crusade say . . . "We're going to go with a policy of co-existence," after you've already made the step to join the crusade. They felt that way at the Bay of Pigs. They feel that way around Elián. It was a crusade--a jihad--as someone told me. In a jihad, you don't have these nuances of family law versus immigration law.

It's a holy war?

It's a holy war. And you have to remember, when the whole Cuba-US confrontation began, the US was just emerging from McCarthyism. In a sense, the Cuban exiles learned too well the lessons of the climate of political opinion and anti-communism that was prevalent in the US as late as the middle 1960s and later. So therefore, it's history coming back to haunt the United States in the form of these people who are still keeping to a faith that was the faith that prevailed in the United States--at least until the Vietnam War.

Has their power dissipated since?

Even though the hard-line exiles lost the Elián battle, they've shown that they still have the capacity to throw a wrench in the rational resolution of any problem between the United States and Cuba. When you look at problems like the Palestinian-Israeli problem, you see that there is some hope of resolution, whereas the Cuba-US exile situation doesn't seem to be going towards negotiation. You ask, why is that? Not that many Americans have died in the fight over Cuba. Repression in Cuba has been bad, but you can't compare it to what's happened in many other countries that have been able to come to terms with their past. A million people died in the Spanish Civil War, and they were able to move on after some decades. I think one of the reasons is that this is a game involving three players. And triads are tough and troubled in politics, like in love. Anybody can throw a wrench in this machinery.

Who are the members of the triad?

Cuba, the exiles, and the US government. We have seen time and again, where there seems to be progress in a particular area, or it looks like the US is finally going to lift some significant part of the embargo, the exiles weigh in with all their lobbying muscle and stop it. In some cases, it's looked like Cuba has thrown a wrench into the machinery. Another interpretation is that the exiles have provoked the Cuban government into throwing the wrench, such as with the Brothers To The Rescue flight. What you have is more possibilities of conflict than when you only have two parties. That's one reason I think we haven't moved further along the road of negotiations. And the Elián saga, involving these three parties in a very, very clear fashion, brings it out very well. Ironically, the odd party out was the exile group. They have traditionally had difficult, but in the end, cooperative relations with Washington and conflictual relations with Havana. In this case, it turned out that Havana and Washington were converging on the same policy, while the exiles were protesting all the way.

What do the exiles want from the US?

There is this secret desire among many exiles for the US government to do something effective towards Fidel Castro.

To invade Cuba...?

Somewhere around two-thirds of Cuban exiles polled in Miami a couple of years ago said they would support US military action to overthrow Castro. Every time there is a confrontation between the two countries, some members of Congress--who happen to be Cuban-American--always call for a military option, particularly a naval blockade. So I think there is lingering hope that somehow tensions will escalate to the point where that will take place. They think that that is the only thing that will really be effective. And the next best thing is a tough, tight embargo. It's the most aggressive policy that's practical.

But then, many Cuban Americans send money to family in Cuba....?

In the hard-line exile mentality, sending something to your relatives is not on the same plane as trading with the enemy. However, some hard-core exiles have called for family members not to send money, not to send medicine, not to send goods to their families in Cuba. That's a nonstarter. By and large, Cubans will send to their families. But they want to send their families what they need. That's the limit on the power of ideology to move the exile community--they will not accept that kind of proscription.

Is the Cuban exiles' view of Cuba realistic?

The situation in Cuba is very difficult for the vast majority of the population. There are harsh conditions. If you happen to dissent, it's very uncomfortable and maybe dangerous. I think the exiles see things in more dramatic terms, in starker terms than other people, who have made a different choice and who have wished to remain on the island. Both outsiders and people who stay on the island in general have a more nuanced view. They are there and they may be suffering a lot of hardships, and they may be very opposed to the government. But they tend to see things in less black-white terms.

I have heard innumerable stories of people arriving in the United States having even made that choice, but not yet accustomed to the exile worldview. The views of people who left Cuba at the most traumatic, wrenching time of the revolution--when civil war was virtually going on in the country, and thousands of people were being imprisoned, and hundreds were being executed--tend to be very crystallized, very hard, very black versus white.

But there's no doubt that there are really tough problems in Cuba that the Cuban government doesn't seem to be able to resolve. There are real reasons for people to be disaffected, for people to want to leave the country. But some people would prefer to raise small children in Cuba, nonetheless, because of less violence in the schools, and more interaction with friends and family, if they were able to provide for them economically.

How do they see `freedom'...?

Many people have pointed out the seeming contradiction in the ideology of hard-line Cuban exiles, in that they espouse democracy and freedom, but when they have to transgress against that in the cause of anti-communism, they make an exception. And that seems like a glaring contradiction to just about everybody outside of Miami's center of gravity.

It's very, very difficult for the hard-core exiles to understand that any whiff of authoritarianism is deadly for their cause. The one card that they could have in this post-communist world is to represent the democratic alternative--or at least the foreign branch of the democratic alternative--in Cuba.

But they don't . . .

The exile is driven so much by history, by visceral reactions, by the trauma. There is so little modern democratic, enlightened leadership, and their capacity to lead a very . . . insular population in Miami away from that anachronistic politics of resentment is so small, so little. In a post-communist world where Marxist-Leninism has imploded as an ideology and the Soviet bloc has disappeared, the exiles often end up looking more authoritarian, more out of touch than the Cuban regime. That's a failure of political leadership. It's one of the many ironies that have come out as a result of the Elián struggle.

And there is another irony. The same people have been telling us that the Cuban regime is about to collapse if we just keep the pressure on. Now, in the Elián affair, they tell us the only way to guarantee a decent democratic future for a six-year-old child is in the United States. That's an admission of failure.

So they're admitting it won't work?

Implicitly, they're saying they have no confidence that there's going to be change. They have no confidence that their policy--the one that the US government has implemented on their behalf-- is going to work. Of course, they have not stopped to look at that contradiction, because the ideology and practice of the hard-line community is incoherent. It's maintained through dint of good politics, good lobbying, good campaign contributions, and the very bad image that Fidel Castro personally has in the United States.

Why was the raid so shocking to this community?

By and large, Cuban exiles in the United States have been treated with kid gloves in relation to the way Mexicans and Salvadorians and others who have entered this country have been treated. They have no experience, with some exceptions--the Mariel prisoners being one of them--of INS raids, rough treatment by federal agents and those kinds of things.

And when the raid came . . .

So when the raids came, they had no experience. They were not prepared. They felt that they had been a favored group and that they had done very well, and that they should be treated accordingly. This is not what came down.

Didn't they think that everyone in the US is treated that way?

There's a lot of denial by Cuban-Americans that unjust things happen in this country. They don't want to see the country of their choice cast in bad light. I think they believe that if other people are treated in a different way, it's because there is a good reason for that. They believe that they're coming from a unique situation, that they're not coming for economic reasons, and that political refugees are treated differently in international law and policy.

Do they feel that they've paid their dues?

There's a feeling of having paid their dues in the United States. But there is this continuing idea that Cubans are political refugees, where other people are economic migrants.

But now people see them as irrational.

...It was a public relations defeat in every sense of the word. They tried to recover from that defeat through a public relations campaign. They failed to see that the reaction to the Cuban exile behavior, or the hard-line behavior, was not an endorsement of Fidel Castro. The image of Fidel Castro in the United States is not very good. You can't really increase his negatives very much, because they're already very high.

The American reaction to the Cuban exile hard-liners was in line with the thought that, even despite Fidel Castro and his image, a case like the Elián case should be handled as a family situation, as a father and son situation. To politicize it to the degree that it was politicized in Miami is something that shows fanaticism and disrespect for law and good judgment. Again, I think the hard-liners are missing the point of what happened here. There's not much to be gained by attacking somebody who already has a very, very poor image in the American mind.

What role did radio play?

There is a sense that Miami is very Cuba-centric, that all roads lead to Cuba in Miami. And the radio stations are a key element in maintaining that. They talk about nothing else for much of the day. They talk to people on the island every day and they turn almost every issue into a life and death struggle over Fidel Castro, whether it's a musical group coming to Miami, or whether it's an ordinance in local politics.

So Elián was a great subject for them?

Elián was kind of an epitome of the struggle against Castro. It was a story that contained so many elements and possibilities, and it came at a good time for Miami too. Back in the early 1990s, the exiles thought that the Cuban regime would totter very soon. By the time Elián came to Miami, very few people were looking towards packing their bags for Cuba any time soon. So Elián created a rallying point, a point of mobilization, a new cause that would rally a very, very tired exile community.

The radio stations went along with this?

The radio stations made a killing from the Elián situation in terms of audience and prominence and visibility. It was ready-made for them. They took an unusually active role in this.

What did the Elian situation do to the relationship between Cubans and other groups?

It's true that Cubans feel very misunderstood and very alone in the Elián fight and in their greater struggle. Massive Cuban support for the Republican Party, for example, is something that African-Americans don't appreciate, especially since the Republican Party has led the fight against affirmative action and many other things that blacks hold dear. The Cubans will say, "We support the Republican Party because it's tougher on communism. And they've really taken an unusually active role in this Elián thing just to get back at us."

This is a conflicted discussion that is not going to be easily settled. There is a tremendous gap, specifically between African-Americans and Cuban-Americans in this community. It's probably the toughest, broadest gap that exists in the ethnic groups here. We're talking about a rather intense situation. I don't think there's much talking going on between the groups, and there's even less listening and less understanding.

Is it better with Haitians?

There have been some efforts to reach out to the Haitians among some Cuban communities. And some of these efforts have brought some fruits. There are some Haitians who are Republicans, for example, so the gap is not exactly as broad.

Does anyone openly talk against the exiles' views?

A very curious thing happened in Miami around Elián. For example, you would see members of the Catholic Church who were on the "keep-Elián-in-Miami" program come out and express their views. You did not see any clergy in the Catholic Church come out and say Elián should be reunited with his father, which is the position that the Cuban Catholic bishops have taken. And that's very curious. Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin says that she thought at first that Elián should be reunited with his father. She didn't breathe a word of that when she changed her mind. She wrote editorials in the New York Times; she was all over the media. Those who are with the program are in power to speak; those who are not with the program are silent.

It's sad.

It's a very, very sad situation. A community that came to this country to be able to speak and live in a democracy and organize politically has, through its influence, created a situation here in Miami where people are practicing self-censorship.

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