saving elian
interview: victor curry

picture of victor curry

He is president of the Miami-Dade chapter of the NAACP and is senior pastor of the New Birth Baptist Church. Curry is also the general manager of a radio station in Miami.
How did the Elián story play in Miami's black community?

In the broader sense, it polarized our community. It divided us, really, by ethnic lines. There was one report that some 79 percent of Anglos believed that Elián should have been with his father. The numbers were in the 80th percentile for African-Americans. And so many of our Cuban brothers and sisters felt that we were anti-Cuban, because we thought that Elián should have been with his father. It had nothing to do with Castro, and it had nothing to do with our Cuban brothers and sisters here in Miami-Dade. But it was just torn down ethnic lines. What I really think the Elián thing did was bring out a deeper problem that we have here in Miami-Dade.

Some say that the Cuban-Americans in Miami can't put politics aside.

The reason why many of our Cuban brothers and sisters are upset is because this was the first time that the federal government said no to them, and they can't handle that. Those of us who've been living in America, we've had the federal government, the state government, and the local government tell us no many times. And in 40 years, the Cuban-Americans have never been told no. So they take it out on Janet Reno, and they take it out on Bill Clinton.

. . .

The Cuban-Americans in Miami say that they're exiles.

Exile means that they're not going to assimilate, that one day they're going to go back to Cuba. That's from the old guard. Many of the younger professional Cubans don't think like that. They have assimilated in Miami-Dade, or in the United States of America. It is that old guard, that Batista guard, that feels that once Castro has been taken down, they are all going to get up and they're all going to go back. They're not going back. Castro can leave tomorrow and there will not be a mass exodus out of Miami-Dade to go back to Cuba to stay.

i'm not surprised with how they treat african-americans, because this is how they treated their black cubans in cuba before castro took over. They feel humiliated by their failure in the Elián situation.

What they're trying to do is to fight Castro from 90 miles away. You don't win a revolution by words. You overthrow a government by being in that country. They always try to use the illustration of civil rights. They say, "The African-American community should be with us, because you all remember the civil rights movement." You can't compare it to the civil rights movement. Back in the 1950s and the 1960s, when we had a problem in Alabama, we went to Alabama, and we spoke against the governor and everybody else who was oppressing African people. We went to Alabama. When we had a problem with Washington, we had the March on Washington. On March 7, when we had a problem with the governor, we went to Tallahassee. You have a problem with Castro, then go to Cuba. Fight on his ground, on his territory. You will never win this war over here.

Every time some prominent person comes to Miami-Dade, if they've had any contact with Castro, this community goes nuts. Mandela came here back in the 1980s, and because Mandela had some kind of relationship with Castro, the Cuban mayors would not give him a key to the city, nor even honor him. That is asinine. Everything is about Castro. It just tears up the whole community, fighting against that one man 90 miles away. Go fight him, go back to your homeland and do whatever you have to do. But don't cause chaos in this country and in this county trying to fight a war that you're afraid to go back to Cuba and fight. I don't think you tear up the whole community because you're trying to get to one bearded man.

And if they know they're not going back to Cuba?

Move on. You are an American now, you have to assimilate. I'm descended from Africa and my heart aches over some of the things that I see in Rwanda and other places in the continent. But I'm also an American, and I have to be cognizant of the fact that I cannot mistreat other people in Miami-Dade because of some situations in Africa. When the apartheid situation was going on in Africa and South Africa, we demonstrated, we protested. But we did not tear up our community because we were trying to get to the people who had Mandela in jail. You can't fight like that.

Your criticism of the Cuban community here is pretty strong--what's their reaction?

They say I torment them. I don't torment them. I just speak the truth, and the truth is that we don't have a problem with Cuban-Americans. You go back to the late 1950s and the 1960s when they started coming over here, you would never see where we protested. Never, because we understand oppression. Even in our own country, America, we understand oppression. We don't mind anybody getting away from oppression. But at the same time, you cannot come here, become empowered, and then treat black people the way other people have treated us--which is to leave us out. We're disenfranchised. It's amazing that there are people who don't even speak English who are now in high-level management in Miami-Dade government, and nobody seems to say there's a problem. That's a problem.

And the language factor creates resentment?

Yes, because in most jobs and promotions, now you have to be bilingual. Bilingualism used to mean that you're fluent in English, but know a little Spanish. But in Miami-Dade, you have to be fluent in Spanish and maybe you can know a little English. That's where the problem comes. We're in America, and the language of this land is English.

Do they understand your problem with this?

Some do. Some don't. And some don't care.

Is there any empathy between the two communities?

It's a different kind of suffering. They fled when they started suffering. We have to stay and endure. I empathize with them. I sympathize with them. I just have a problem with this obsession with Castro. And maybe I will never understand it, because I never lived in that type of atmosphere.

Why was there such an obsession with Elián?

Nobody knows other than this is another way to fight Castro. If the boy goes back, Castro wins. ,,, If he goes back, Elián may become some kind of major celebrity. He's not going to go back and be oppressed. Castro will not give them that benefit. I think Castro plays with these people over here. He says things to rile them up, because he knows that he can push certain buttons.

There's a band that came over here, Los Van Van. The Cuban-Americans went crazy over that. That's music. Music used to be the universal language. But they even politicize that. . . . We need to, as young people say, chill out--just go in and enjoy the music, and forget the politics behind it. There are some groups I won't go see because they may promote racist things, but I'm not going to be outside doing a whole lot of protesting. I'm just not going to go, I'm not going to give them my money.

Was the Los Van Van incident a frightening experience?

There is so much intimidation in Miami-Dade. A friend of mine, a Cuban man, has a store. And when they decided to do that shutdown of all of the businesses, he called me and literally, he was about to cry on the phone. He said, "Bishop, my father brought me over here at the age of seven. He told me, 'I brought you here so that you could have the freedom to make choices.'" My friend said, "I want to keep my business open, because 95 percent of my clientele is African-Americans, and that would be a slap in their face. The only reason why I'm even thinking about closing is because I've received phone calls. I've been threatened. They say that my store will be blown up or that there will be some kind of distraction or disturbance outside my store."

What did he do?

He kept his store open. ... It's a lot of intimidation. There are a lot of younger Cubans who would speak against this, but they're afraid of the repercussions.

What about the Anglos who won't talk about it at all?

I'm a man of faith. I really, really believe that God will bless me if I speak truth. And I believe the Bible, where it says truth will make us free. If you suppress truth, if you don't speak truth, then we won't be free. I'm not intimidated by any of them. I've had death threats. I've had people call. I'm not speaking against them, I'm giving my opinion. And I found out that this is the opinion of a lot of whites, and this is the opinion of a lot of blacks. And guess what? This is also the opinion of a lot of Cubans.

But they don't say it in public.

They're afraid. My church here; it's a melting pot. But I do not rely on Cuban-Americans for our sustenance, and that's why I can speak freely. They don't advertise on our radio station, so I'm not going to lose any advertising dollars. They don't come to this church and contribute, so I'm not going to lose that. I can speak the truth. I've sat down with the mayor several times. I've said to him, "The only thing that African-Americans really need and want is to feel that the mayor will include everybody." A lot of my Anglo brothers and sisters don't feel that they're a part of Miami-Dade anymore. I could take the other side and say the Anglos are reaping what they sow because of how they treated us when they were in power. When they were in power, they treated black people bad. Now Cubans are in power in the city of Miami.

. . . Now, I could sit back and say, "See, Anglos are getting what they deserve." But that's wrong, too. I don't care if they mistreated us and me. For them to be treated the way they're treated--that's wrong, too.

those of us living in america, we've had the ...  government tell us no many times.  in forty years [the cuban americans] have never been told no. What did you think when Janet Reno came and negotiated?

We said, "Would you all go get the real Janet Reno and send this one back?" Because that's not the Janet Reno that we knew here in Miami-Dade. Janet Reno was tough. I love Janet Reno. Janet Reno is the only white lady I know who can walk down the center of Liberty City, in the Martin Luther King, Jr. parade without any bodyguards. And people would applaud. Black people in the middle of an African-American community would run out of the audience and hug her neck. She walks down the middle of the street, with no bodyguards and no police around. So we know her as a no-nonsense person.

When she came down here and negotiated, that was not Janet. What was Janet was that Saturday morning of the raid, to go in there, get that boy and get out of there. We were surprised that it took so long. We knew something was going to happen. When the mayors said that they were not going to help the federal government, when Lázaro stood up and said they're not giving up the child, when some of the people made a human chain around the house, I said, "They don't play with the federal government that way." You do not threaten them. You do not back them in a corner. Something had to happen. And when they came and took Elián, I was not surprised.

Nor devastated.

No, I just thought it took too long.

The Cubans don't understand democracy?

No. You cannot defy the federal government. You can defy them if you want, but you have to pay the consequences, even in a democracy. This land is about laws; it's based on laws. And if the federal government says something, you've got to abide by it. People ask me all the time, "What if that was a Haitian child?" It never would have gotten that far. That child would have been back. When Elián came, a few months later there were 400 Haitians who were stopped and sent back without even a hearing. Find some black Cubans and ask them how they're treated here in Miami-Dade.

We don't know where they are.

They're around. Sometimes they don't even identify themselves as black Cubans, because they're not accepted. But the amazing thing is that every time I look at Cuba, most of the Cubans there are dark-skinned Cubans.

The whites are the ones who left Cuba?

Correct. . . . One writer said in his book . . . that the black Cubans said they'd rather live under communism, under Castro, than a democracy under the white Cubans in Cuba, because either way they went it was going to be classism. The darker Cubans were treated less than the lighter Cubans. And many of them find that same truth here in Miami-Dade.

Once I understood that, I'm not surprised with how they treat African-Americans, because this is how they treated their black Cubans in Cuba before Castro took over.

What about the U.S. embargo?

We hear a lot about the embargo over Cuba. What I've discovered is that many of our Cuban brothers and sisters go back and forth to Cuba weekly, monthly, and they take millions of dollars worth of supplies and they send money over to their relatives. If the Castro government is so bad, then if you send money over you are being a hypocrite, because you're telling everybody else that there's an embargo. I understand they have family over there. But then why can't anybody else you know send their goods over and we trade with Cuba? I mean, you're doing it and you're Cuban. I think the embargo should be lifted. They already have violated it themselves.

Will we ever understand what Elián was about?

I don't even think they're going to understand what Elián is all about. I really think, from a larger picture, that maybe God was just trying to show us that you all have some real deep problems here. There's some hatred in this community and racism and prejudice. People who were oppressed are in charge, but now they're oppressing other people.

Dr. King said that we either work together as brothers, or we will perish together as fools. And I add to that: We may have come here on different ships, but we're in the same boat now. And if there's a leak on the side of my boat--in the African-American community, because we're disenfranchised--the whole boat is going down. My end may go down first, but yours is soon to follow unless we patch up this hole.

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