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.

"I think Paula is neither Catholic nor santera," says Santana. "She is a phenomenon typical in the Cuban world. Of course there are people in Miami who don't accept what she does, but I support her motives. And I think the symbolism of a white priest and a black woman, Catholic and African roots, has a beautiful message that the Cuban people can identify with."

The Coral Gables fourplex where Valiente and her son now live will not be their home for long; Valiente says that Daniel's carpentry apprenticeship, which is their main source of income, can't generate enough to cover the rent. After her surgery, she says, she'd like to get a job. It doesn't matter what kind, because she intends to return to Cuba "sooner than Fidel Castro can imagine," she adds with a typically ambiguous dismissal.

"[Many Cuban emigres] just don't know how it is here," observes CANF spokesman Joe Garcia, who deals regularly with new arrivals. "Even the ones who have family or contacts in America. Because they come from a completely controlled society where they're used to everything coming from the government, they expect to be provided for. They don't understand that they're not going to be able to survive if they don't work. It's not that they're looking for something for nothing; they come from a different system entirely."

After three months Valiente's ground-floor apartment, with its shiny wood floors and its new furnishings, looks not quite lived-in. She hasn't hung any pictures yet: a primitive-style oil painting of the Virgin of Regla, a gift from the Cuban exile artist Pedro Ortiz, is propped against one living-room wall; an elaborate landscape leans against another. Her statue of the Virgin occupies an arched nook. A collection of trinkets on the glass-top coffee table includes a new miniature picture frame; the photo inside doesn't make sense until you realize it's the one that came with the frame: a smiling white couple in tennis togs posing with their blond son. While the coffee table, and a pink sofa, love seat, and easy chair fill the living room, the essential object is the telephone. Valiente is constantly receiving or making calls, often to radio phone-in shows.

Valiente's son Daniel moves from room to room like a lean shadow. Muscular, with traces of a beard on his long jaw and chin, he looks taller and older than he is. While in Cuba, he recounts, he was attacked and badly beaten by about 30 young men. Another time he was arrested at a salsa concert and locked in a roofless cell for three or four days, unable to shield himself from the sun or rain. Although no one ever told him specifically, he is sure he was targeted because of his mother's activities. Still, he exudes homesickness. "I never wanted to leave," he says, looking at his hands. "I never saw it as a good idea." He left his girlfriend behind, not to mention Cheila. "But the only thing to do now is live a new life, get ahead, learn English."

Having tuned her radio to a morning talk show, his mother has just commenced an animated phone conversation. "I put the responsibility on Fidel Castro," she repeats several times, puffing on a Marlboro Lite. She is speaking to a friend about a call she received the day before, advising her that two men in Havana had been casing the fourth-floor apartment where her daughter has been staying. They were all set to stage a rescue of the child … la Orestes Lorenzo, she says. "I told them not to try it," Valiente will note later. "I'm afraid it's all a maneuver prepared by Castro to provoke me to try to rescue her from here. There are so many infiltrators who would be in a position to do that."

When the Reverend Jesse Jackson changed planes at Miami International late last year after meeting with Castro in Havana, Valiente asked him to intercede for her daughter's release. He had, after all, just helped engineer the release of Castro's granddaughter. Dade Commissioner Pedro Reboredo, who met Valiente during one of her radio-show visits, arranged the brief airport encounter with the help of several prominent black leaders, including Commission Chairman Art Teele and U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, both of whom were also present at the meeting. In March Meek brought up Valiente's plight at the Legislative Black Caucus's Florida public policy conference in Miami and she has written a letter to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, according to her spokesman John Schelble in Washington. Valiente, however, is angry at Jackson, who she said ignored her when she tried to speak to him again in Washington this past March. (Dozens of phone inquiries to the Rainbow Coalition Office in Washington went unanswered.) "He is supposed to be a champion of the black people," says the activist. "This is a black child being deprived of her liberty by a racist government, but Jesse Jackson is friendly with Fidel Castro, so he turned his back on me."

In March Valiente also attended hearings held by U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, a Democrat from New York who advocates an end to the U.S. embargo of Cuba. Valiente, who staunchly supports the embargo, was affronted when she wasn't allowed to testify at the hearing. She says she was told that "the list of speakers had been erased in the computer" and she is convinced the erasure was the work of una mano oculta, a hidden hand working to impede her efforts. "There are two hidden hands that operate," she says with a firm nod. "One is Fidel Castro's. The other one, I can't say until I have all the proof, but I'm gathering the proof and I'll be able to reveal his identity soon." Emile Milne, a spokesman for Rangel, says Valiente wasn't invited to speak at the March hearings. He doesn't know anything about an erased computer list, he adds.

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