saving elian
interview: maurice ferre

picture of maurice ferre

Originally from Puerto Rico, Ferre is a former mayor of Miami.
What did you make of the Elián case?

I think it's just a continuation of the trouble that Miami presently has. The Cuban community is a community that's been here for forty years.

These communities have had tremendous advantages as they arrived in the United States. First, because of Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, and the Cuban Adjustment Act, and Helms-Burton, so they're used to success. They've integrated very quickly into the economic life of Miami. They've done well. I think the Cuban community has a problem, and the problem is that they have not yet decided whether they're really Americans or Cubans. For the time being, they really are first, Cubans, and Americans second. Until that transition occurs, I think we're going to have these problems with the integration of that community into the true American way of life.

What did they want?

The Cubans have gone through a very serious trauma. They've lost their homeland. They're exiles. They're not here as immigrants, they're here as exiles. The fact that 95 percent of them will stay after Castro is gone is not significant. It's how do you define yourself. The definition of the Cuban community here is that they're exiles. They have a very strong sense of who they are and where they've come from, and they have a strong loyalty to the homeland, to Cuba. And they don't want to give that up.

here,  [miami] over 50 percent of this community ...  is hispanic.  this is the first time in u.s. history that a million people or more has been taken over by a minority in such a short time. Why do you think there's so much rage and anger?

Elián is the tip of the iceberg. It's a very complicated series of things. Part of it is that they're exiles, and the other part is that there's a mea culpa involved in this. They have a sense that perhaps many of them should have stayed and seen an end to Castro in Cuba. They have a little bit of a guilt complex.

How do you see them? Are they different from other immigrants, exiles, who have come to the U.S.?

When the immigrants came from Italy and eastern Europe and all of Europe, those people were going to a new world for a new life. They cut their ties. It was important for them to become Americans.

Cuba is only a couple hundred miles away from where we are sitting right here. There's a constant wave of Cubans coming in and it's a community that is self-sustaining. You can go from life to death in Spanish, all Cuban. It's been made so easy that a lot of people, especially older people, are reluctant to change. So I think they look back. They want to remember Cuba fondly and they have a deep emotional tie, and that's understandable.

Doesn't it make others angry?

Yes, it makes the rest of the population angry. What's the solution to all this? I think the solution is time. There has never been a case in the history of mankind where an outside community hasn't absorbed an existing community. Whether it was the Moors in Spain, or the Turks in Greece or the Normans in England. ... These people will be integrated and they'll be Americans, just as American as the Muellers and the Millers, in a generation or two. But in the meantime, we have to go through this.

What was this battle about?

I think it has to do with this fervent anti-communism that the Cubans have deeply in their souls. They don't want to accept the fact that Castro will have a victory in this, and they see this as a clear political victory. They're at loggerheads, and this is a challenge. That's not to say that there's not a humanitarian aspect of it. I think there is a strong sense of identity with the child. There are over 100,000 children who came here in the beginning of the Castro regime in operation Pedro Pan. I forget the exact numbers ...

Fourteen thousand.

Fourteen thousand. But their parents, and then other children came behind them. All these people that came over were told, and they deeply believe, that they were seeking freedom. They were freedom fighters. Eisenhower had granted the Hungarians the right of special status because they were freedom fighters. That was the same verbiage that was used during the Lyndon Johnson administration in dealing with these people. They were freedom fighters. They were fighting against communism, they were escaping to freedom, and I think they've been traumatized by that.

What is it they want?

There's been a thing for a long, long time that the United States has some kind of obligation to fight communism and therefore to destroy the Cuban regime. That's not necessarily an illusion. The United States government interfered in Guatemala, unquestionably intervened in Chile with Allende, and has overthrown communist-leaning governments in many parts of the world. And the CIA has a long history of being involved. So it's not as if they're inventing all this. . . . The communist system is so strong, and the control of Cuba so strong, they believe that they can't do it from the outside.

Why don't they fight Castro from within?

I think that's impossible. That's like asking White Russians to go back to Russia and reclaim Russia. Things don't happen that way. Once they move, they're exiles. And I think it's unfair to ask people who now have children and grandchildren in school to do that. Now, should they have stayed in Cuba? That's another question. For them to go back? I think that's unlikely.

Some have said that they need to stop calling themselves exiles.

That's like telling the Puerto Ricans to stop complaining about the bombing of Vieques. Puerto Ricans have a right to complain about the bombing of Vieques, and it brings up this cultural nationalism. They don't see that there's any contradiction with their strong identity and loyalty to Cuba and being American citizens.

Do they understand they incur anger in public opinion?

Yes. Now, they are in denial, which I think further exacerbates the anger of people. What we have is an escalation of very hard feelings, and you can see it in the south Florida community.

Why are people angry?

On the one hand, the Cuban Americans feel very strongly that they're really not to blame, and that the rest of the world doesn't understand their plight. The more desperate they get, they reach out for things that offend people, for example, comparing this to the Holocaust. That's offensive to most people, whether you're a Jew or a non-Jew. This has not been a holocaust. It's nowhere near the tragedy, the trauma, the human suffering, the pain of the Holocaust. That offends people.

On the other side, the non-Cuban community feels very strongly that these people have an obligation to integrate into the American society, and that they're not doing that. So there's a great deal of resentment that comes from the process. That resentment is nothing new in American life. There was resentment against the Irish, and they were English-speaking people. There was resentment against the Italians and the eastern Europeans in the beginning of the century.

What I think is new is the magnitude of it. I think this is the first time you've seen this happen, but there's a reason for that. In New York at the height of the immigration at the turn of the century or the later part of last century, you never had more than 15 percent of any community dominate New York. Here, 50 percent of this community--and now closer to 60 percent--is Hispanic. This is the first time in a 40-year period in American history that a million people or more has been taken over by a minority in such a short time.

americans spent a lot of money to help cubans integrate, and i don't think the cuban community is fully aware of how much really has been done.  or that this is such an exceptional thing. What about the sentiment that the community is anti-democratic?

. . . Dealing with the First Amendment is a complicated thing for someone who hasn't dealt with the First Amendment--and for that matter, for all the Bill of Rights that we hold so dear in this country that are so important to daily life in American life.

You constantly hear on Cuban talk shows, that "We're the majority and in a democracy, the majority rules." But they don't understand that minorities have rights. Why? Well, it's not because they're stupid. It's because that's not part of the Cuban paradigm. It's a difficult concept to really accept if you haven't been brought up in that--that democracy is the rule of the majority, but also with consideration for the minority.

...The history of Latin America, Cuba--is one in which human rights and civil rights and the Bill of Rights were not very prevalent in the day-to-day practice.

And, of course, they labeled anyone who disagreed about their fight to keep Elian in the U.S., they labeled those people communists.

Look, I think there's a cogent argument that can be made about Elián staying here. There were some African girls who were brought to the United States and their parents and their family wanted them to go back. The girls were granted asylum based on the fact that their genitals would be mutilated if they went back, because that's the custom of the country.

I think Cubans are entitled to feel that, if Elián goes back to Cuba, they're going to mutilate his mind. And I think that's not far from accurate. So the question is, if you dealt that way with these African girls, why won't you deal that way with this boy?

... Is there a cogent argument for this child not going back to Cuba? I think there is. The problem is that the Cubans refuse to see the other aspect of it, and that is the reunification of the child with his father.

What do you think is the source of the rage?

Frustration. Frustration that Castro is still there. It's a challenge to them. I think it also has to do with cultural patterns. It has to do with paradigms. It has to do with the way they view life. It has to do with their success in America. It has to do with the fact that they look upon themselves as the majority of this community.

What does Elián mean, compared to what they thought it means?

Elián became the spearpoint of the issue of Castro and anti-communism and the United States fighting their battle and getting rid of Castro. And I think all of this frustration comes out through this.

What is the United States' view?

The American view is that if you're going to be an exile, then you're entitled, but then you have to act like an exile. If you're going to be an American, then you have to be a part of the American community and accept the American paradigms.

And they burned the American flag.

I'm not sure who was responsible for that, so I don't think that's prototypical. Burning the flag was not typical. It's a different situation than waving the Cuban flag. The American flag is the symbol of the country. It doesn't represent Clinton, and it doesn't represent the attorney general. And by flying it upside-down, you're not protesting against Clinton. You're really, in effect, offending sensibilities of your co-American citizens, and I think it doesn't warrant that.

You say, well, the flag was burned during the Vietnam War. . . . There were a lot of burnings of flags by Americans. I think it's a different situation, because that really was an American war that affected all of us. This is something that affects a million and a half Cubans that are in exile, out of a country of 260 million people, so I think it becomes an offensive thing.

...I understand the resentment the American community has with Cubans, and I think the Cubans understand the resentment. Gloria Estefan the other day completely backed down and said, "Well, maybe Elián should be reunited with the father," so I think there's a gradual understanding of this.

You mean once there's a new generation?

I think you're seeing a change. Gloria Estefan was a change. And I think it's a clear indication that there's recognition. The appellate court knocked down the Cuba cause in the Metro Dade government, where you couldn't do anything with anybody that had anything to do with Cuba. ... If you look at the softening of the embargo--which is about to happen in Congress--these are a series of losses that have strongly affected the psyche of the Cubans, and has made them reflect that perhaps they need to lower their guard a little bit.

What about the black, Asian and Cuban communities?

The relationship between the black community and the Cuban-American community deteriorated even further because of Elián. It's a symbol to them that they're being treated differently, that they haven't had the opportunities in their opinion that the Cuban community has had, that the immigration laws for Haitians who are black are not the same as for Cubans. So there is a major resentment. The Elián issue has exacerbated the feelings of this community, not only with the white American community, but also with the black American community.

Do Cuban-Americansthink they get preferential treatment?

You know, I think they don't. I think deep down inside, they somehow think that they have been treated as they deserve. They don't really want to accept the fact that they have had preferences that no other community has ever had during the last hundred years. That's part of the problem. They've had so many advantages over the years, so they're reluctant to accept any setbacks. Part of this problem is the fault of the various governments of the United States of the past 40 years for its sensitivity and generosity.

But they say, "We've earned it."

Yes. In a speech that I made to the League of Women Voters a couple of weeks ago, I made some references to just the subject, and the Cuban-Americans that were in the audience were very upset with me. They came back and said, "We paid our dues, we've earned it. We're taxpayers."

They don't want to accept the fact that billions of dollars have been spent on their behalf, and there's only a million and a half of them. We've spent a lot of money as Americans to help Cubans integrate, and I don't think the Cuban community is fully aware of how much really has been done, or that this is such an exceptional thing.

Is it the first time ever they didn't get what they wanted?

I don't know that it's the first time ever, but they certainly have a long history of success. The Cuban-American Foundation and its founder, Jorge Mas Canosa , was a symbol of that. That's why he was such a folk hero to the Cuban-American community--because he really had a series of impressive successes in getting the Cuban-American community's way accepted by the government of the United States.

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