No Peace for Paula

In Cuba she was a symbol, the Madonna of the Counterrevolution. But in Miami, it's a different kind of fight for Paula Valiente.

In Valiente A whose very name, after all, means "courageous" -- CANF possessed an especially potent symbol of the common people of Cuba, the majority of whom are black or mestizo. Though her strategy of clothing political protest in religious robes wasn't an original concept, her processions, which defied Cuba's prohibition on such public religious displays, were a new and daring variation. Her race was doubly significant for CANF, which is sensitive to criticism that its membership is made up of white, well-to-do males; the PR-savvy organization seldom misses an opportunity to highlight the fact that many of the dissidents who remain in Cuba are black. One recent exile shakes his head at the furor over Valiente, describing her as "una pincelada negra para adornar la fundaci centsn" -- a token touch of black to adorn [the white face of] the foundation.

But Valiente is no longer so close to her former champions. She feels the organization abandoned her after the three-month rent subsidy ended (according to spokesman Joe Garcia, the foundation rarely pays for more than three months' housing). Those who listen to her on the radio, that central communications conduit for the exile community, might easily conclude that Valiente has become hostile to CANF. Though she always declines to name names, she freely castigates in elliptical, allegorical terms the "arrogant and self-interested" elements among el exilio. She levels unspecific charges that "some parts of the exile community may feel they are being damaged" or are losing face because she refuses to align herself with any single faction.

Besides her radio appearances, Valiente tape-records phoned-in statements from dissidents on the island. These she brings to CID, a local short-wave station operated by ex-revolutionary hero Huber Matos, to be broadcast back to Cuba. At one time she was one of those activists whose statements were beamed back to the island, but she made them to Ninoska Perez Castell centsn, director of La Voz de la Fundaci centsn. Perez, who was Valiente's closest contact on the mainland for the year and a half preceding her exile, may have been the person most responsible for making the dissident a counterrevolutionary star. Now there's an even greater distance between them; they haven't spoken in several months, apparently a result of Valiente's general estrangement from the CANF. Perez considers the breakup a personal loss. "When nobody knew about Paula, I was there for her," she says with a hint of sadness.

Because so many knew about her by the time she got to Miami, Valiente was greeted by a ready-made audience, immediate credibility, and, thanks to her invocation of religion, a certain amount of immunity from criticism. It was only natural that she would resume her peregrinaciones stateside. So she did, convening the processions on the 8th and 24th of each month, just as she had in Cuba.

Yet here in the U.S., where such gatherings don't carry the weight of illegality, the processions have lost the luster of their daring. And that poses a dilemma for Paula Valiente. As with others who have left the island, her life is no longer a choice of supporting Castro or going against the revolution and brazenly accepting the consequences. Here the enemy is no longer as clear and present and predictable; people whose lives were once defined by a defiant struggle against communism have been transformed into ordinary janitors and clerks struggling against the banal concerns of day-to-day existence. "You begin to realize you have to find another way," observes Omar L centspez Montenegro, a dissident who left Cuba two years ago and who now works as news editor for La Voz de la Fundaci centsn. "In Cuba you said anything against the government, and it was a heroic act. Here in a free society, you have to find out who you really are. I don't think Paula has figured that out yet."

Valiente plants her white pumps on the patchy grass close to the sea wall, facing away from the water and toward the group of about two dozen gathered in a circle around her. Father Francisco Santana, the associate director of Ermita de la Caridad, occasionally joins them to pray, but tonight he isn't here. From her purse Valiente takes a rosary, blue beads interspersed with white, and draws a breath. A motorboat passes slowly in the darkening water.

"Vamos a orar," she begins, palms open to the sky, in the rhythmic singing speech for which people from Cuba's eastern regions are noted. Let us pray. Sancta Maria, madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores.... A reed-thin white woman who marched with Valiente in Cuba, dressed all in white save for black orthopedic shoes, hurries to Valiente and presses into her hands a small statue of the Virgin of Regla, patron of the fishing village of Regla, near Havana. In the idiosyncratic Cuban mixture of Catholicism and African-based Santeria, the Virgin is also known as Yemaya, queen of the sea. The chipped plaster statue is the same blue-robed, black-skinned Virgin that accompanied Valiente on her processions through the streets of Havana, to jail, and finally, to exile.

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