By Ryan Yousefi
By Chuck Strouse
By Terrence McCoy
By Terrence McCoy
By Terrence McCoy
By Michael E. Miller
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Michael E. Miller
Rosaries dangling from their hands, a clutch of women stands on the sidewalk that circles Ermita de la Caridad church. Daylight is fading on a southerly wind from Cuba, breathing wisps of clouds over the tepee-shaped church, which overlooks Biscayne Bay just south of downtown Miami. The women, the majority of whom are of middle age, are talking in hushed rushes about the desperation on the island, about the balseros who flee every day, and about the newly arrived Cuban they are waiting to see. "Yo estoy loca para hablar con ella," affirms Musmet de la Fe Posada, her frosted black hair ruffling stiffly in the breeze and her crescent eyes filling with tears. "I'm dying to speak with her."
And then she appears, stepping out of a side door with a priest and another woman. Several worshipers point upward at the woman dressed all in white, her skin as black as iron, her face, carved like a mask with diamond-shape eyes and steep cheekbones, turning toward the bay. She moves down the steps and onto a knoll that leads to the low sea wall. Rosaries poised at the ready, Musmet Posada and her companions hurry to follow. Their halting remarks are soon drowned by the woman's rapid declarations, blessing them and advising them of a big event she has planned for the following month, on the eighth day of May. Then, with the wind whipping her white skirt into foam and her hair into a black nimbus, the woman leads the way down to the water, where she will recite the rosary and call for the liberation of Cuba.
Paula Emilda Valiente Hernandez, a 41-year-old former junior high school math teacher, is many things to many people A a curiosity or a saint, depending upon whom you ask. But above all, Paula Valiente is a symbol, a well-publicized conglomeration of dramatic images that at the very least provokes recognition from any Cuban, no matter where he lives or what he believes about his homeland's present-day travails.
Valiente has lived in Miami for six months now, having come to exile with her son, Daniel Angel Pe*a Valiente, age eighteen, this past November. Cuban authorities, Valiente asserts, forced her out of the country because of her dissident activities. Her ten-year-old daughter, Cheila Mayene Castilla Valiente, remains in Havana, caught between the government's declaration that the girl wants to remain with her grandmother (who supports the Castro regime) and Valiente's protests that she is being held captive in order to punish and silence a prominent activist.
Valiente and her son arrived from Cuba to an emotional and prolonged welcome from Miami's exile community. During the previous two years, she had risen to prominence, principally through efforts by the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) to publicize her repeated acts of defiance against the Castro regime, and the arrests and beatings that resulted from those acts. Daily, CANF's short-wave radio broadcasts to the island on La Voz de la Fundaci centsn included calls to join Valiente's twice-monthly peregrinaciones, the illegal public religious processions she led through the streets of Havana. Miami's Spanish-language radio and TV stations chronicled Valiente's exploits early on; the Miami Herald and its Spanish-language offspring El Nuevo Herald were slower to catch on, but by mid-1993, months before Valiente's arrival, she was receiving print coverage, mainly in El Nuevo.
Initially, CANF, which helps resettle hundreds of Cuban refugees every year, provided generous support for Valiente. "We took an extra step for her," says CANF spokesman Joe Garcia, explaining that the foundation paid her first three months' rent for an apartment near the airport, took her shopping for furniture and clothing, candles and crucifixes, and helped her obtain Medicaid and other government services. CANF representatives even threw a birthday party for Daniel, Garcia says.
Within a few weeks of her arrival, the foundation flew Valiente to Washington, D.C., to testify at congressional hearings marking the first anniversary of the passage of the Cuban Democracy Act. In Miami she was featured on the local exile radio circuit and she waved to the crowds at the annual Three Kings Parade from a seat in Dade County Commissioner Pedro Reboredo's Cadillac.
Valiente's arrival was not without its controversial moments. From the start, she was dogged by questions about why she had applied for a U.S. visa two years earlier. Her reply: She was homeless and desperate at the time and never really wanted to leave Cuba. In February, when Freedom House in Washington, D.C., flew her to Geneva to attend the annual conference of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, WSCV-TV (Channel 51) reporter Marylis Llanos asked her about a videotape that Cuban delegates had brought with them, which included footage of Valiente's daughter declaring her desire to stay in Cuba, as well as a scene, purported to have been secretly recorded at the Havana airport hours before Valiente's departure, in which the dissident was seen demanding to leave the country. Valiente claimed that the taped statements merely reflected her anxiety at being separated from her daughter, and her fear upon being informed by Cuban authorities that her son would be imprisoned if she remained on the island. Regarding the footage of her daughter, she asserted that the Castro government had manipulated or intimidated the child into making the statement. (Valiente has since produced a note, which she claims was written by Cheila and smuggled out of Havana; in childish script, the missive expresses the girl's suffering and her desire to contact her mother.) Luis Zu*iga, executive director of CANF's Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, defended Valiente's integrity in a speech before the UN conference.
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.
She cradles the statue in the crook of her arm as she continues reciting the rosary, her voice rising with the wind and with emotion. Dios te salve Maria, llena eres de gracia.... Neck straight, she dips her head with the rhythm of her speech. When she looks back up, the still-blue sky reflects in her eyes. Her fists are clenched. Bendita tu eres entre todas las mujeres y bendito es el fruto de tu vientre, Jesus.... Some members of the circle follow the litany, others look toward the horizon. Between rosary repetitions, Valiente prays for the liberation of Cuban political prisoners. Three-quarters of an hour later, the group makes its way back up the grassy knoll to Mass.
This modest gathering is intended to carry on the peregrinaciones Valiente led in Cuba. There she convened processions to the Malec centsn, Havana's famed sea-wall promenade, where the participants, numbering from a dozen to about a hundred, tossed white flowers into the water, praying and demanding freedom for political prisoners. Yemaya's traditional color is white, and as the flowers fell into the water, they became for their throwers orichas, the Santeria deities themselves. At some point during each procession, the group gathered at the church of the Virgen de Regla (on the 8th of the month) or the church of the Virgen de las Mercedes (on the 24th). The two dates are significant: September 8 is the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the holy day in Cuba for the Virgen de la Caridad, the nation's patron saint; September 24 is dedicated to the Virgen de las Mercedes (Our Lady of Mercies, the patron saint of prisoners).
The dates of Valiente's arrests, then, generally correspond to the days of the Virgins. She readily details the occasions on which the police or the Rapid Response Brigades, government-sponsored citizens' vigilante groups, kicked and hit her, and with what: sticks, electric cables, fists, rubber tubing. After commencing her open opposition to the Castro regime in 1991, Valiente says, she was arrested fifteen times; each time she subsequently described the incident by phone to La Voz de la Fundaci centsn and Radio Marti. In 1992 her conviction in a Havana court for "instigating crimes" (one-year sentence, suspended) was reported in the Havana newspaper Tribuna.
Valiente says that one of her worst moments came last year, not on a day of the Virgin but on Jose Marti's birthday, January 28, when she was beaten by members of the Rapid Response Brigade after having interrupted a Communist youth rally in Old Havana with shouts of "Viva Cuba libre!" "They threw me on the ground, they kicked me in the womb, which caused me to urinate right there, and I fainted," she recalls. "Then they dragged me to the police station nearly naked, and they sat me down in the middle of the station among all the men. It was a way to degrade me."
Valiente claims the beating caused lasting damage to her kidneys and uterus and says she will have to undergo surgery sometime before June, when her Medicaid coverage expires. She's unclear, however, about where she'll go for the operation and who will perform it. In the meantime she appears physically robust and is planning a pilgrimage of several miles on foot. Such violent treatment, however, would seem incongruous, especially of a woman so closely identified with the Catholic church, which has been experiencing a resurgence of popularity in Cuba over the past several years. Against a woman, furthermore, who many Cuban intellectuals view as folklor, a simple figure not to be taken seriously, one who would recommend home remedies for a devastating disease.
But no matter how much substance underpins her martyr's stance, Valiente has provoked a strong response from the Cuban government and she continues to capture imaginations and shore up hopes in el exilio. "There is something very symbolic about a black woman walking with the Virgin; in many ways she is embodying Cubanness to the fullest," says Damian Fernandez, director of the graduate program in international studies at Florida International University. "The fact she did this publicly is very meaningful. It's really a challenge to the power of the state, in a country where symbolism is so important, where people have to speak in codes and the regime uses a lot of symbols and myth to legitimize itself. This woman brings together the syncretic nature of the Cuban people: We can believe in everything and nothing at the same time."
Fernandez and other scholars point to the abundant use of religious iconography early in the Cuban revolution, including frequent comparisons of Castro to Christ. They believe the government's awareness of the power of religious symbolism, compounded by the maternal image of suffering projected by Valiente, caused a disproportionately violent reaction to her crusades.
And in a society in crisis, the citizenry may be more apt to grasp for miracles. The power of myth is magnified, both in the eyes of the people and in the eyes of the authorities. "The government is very sensitive to such appeals to the emotions," explains a scholar of religion in Havana, who did not want his name used in this story. While he dismisses Valiente's ultimate counterrevolutionary value, he isn't surprised the government would feel threatened. "In the present instability, the smallest thing could ignite a spark that could in an instant become a fire," says the scholar. "So the police have to stamp out every spark they can find."
"I have no doubt that the Lord chose me for this struggle," declares Valiente, who was born in Guantanamo on December 12, 1952, the year Fulgencio Batista came to power in a military coup, and six years before he was overthrown by Fidel Castro. Sitting at the edge of the pink sofa in the apartment where she now lives in Coral Gables, wearing an ivory-colored satin robe and curlers in her hair, Valiente speaks of her past in a slightly impatient manner that suggests she thinks little about it.
She grew up without religion, she says; her mother, Rosa Hernandez Diaz, was a devout castrista before and after the revolution. Valiente remembers being conscripted as a child to carry medicine to Castro's rebels fighting in the mountains near their home, and occasionally getting caught in a firefight. Her family had always been poor farmers in eastern Cuba, their race giving them even less of a cushion in life. After Castro came to power promising a new social order, her mother's loyalty was rewarded with a job sewing military uniforms in Santiago de Cuba. After separating from her husband, a laborer who still lives in Guantanamo, Rosa Hernandez raised her four girls and one boy alone. Valiente, the third child, is the only one who has opposed Castro. Perhaps if her circumstances had been different, she muses, she would not have set herself against the order and her family would still be intact. On the other hand, she quickly interrupts herself, springing up from the sofa and spreading her arms at her little living room, she could not have refused to join the fight for justice and freedom, the task the Virgin had chosen for her.
Inspired by a second cousin who worked as a schoolteacher, Valiente answered Castro's late-Sixties call for more youth to join that profession. At age fourteen she attended an academy in the Sierra Madre mountains. "Life was very hard there," Valiente recalls. "We were hungry all the time, but we always had to exercise. We worked a lot and got no vacation. They created a Rapid Response Brigade composed of students; they'd beat you up if it got to be too much and you tried to leave. That's when I recognized for the first time what was going on in Cuba." Still, she completed her training and took a job in Santiago.
In 1975, when Daniel was born, one of the presents Valiente received was the plaster statue of the Virgin of Regla. (She speaks little about her relationships with his father and with the father of Cheila, other than to say they were short-lived.) It wasn't until ten years later, she recalls, that she prayed to the Virgin for the first time. Living with her children in Santiago and desperate to join her mother and the rest of her family in Havana, she was too poor to afford the move. On impulse, she recalls, she implored her plaster Virgin to help her reach the capital. Within hours her prayer was answered, which motivated her to begin visiting the church of the Virgin of Regla.
Valiente settled into a position as a math teacher at the Seventh of November secondary school in the Alamar district of Havana. The following year, at a bus stop, she met a young geological engineer named Jorge Luis L centspez. He told her his phone number; neither had anything to write it down with. Valiente remembered the number for a few weeks and then forgot it. After a month, however, when she was out on an errand with her mother, the number flashed to her mind. L centspez, it turned out, lived only a few blocks away. Not long after, they were married. He was a loyal fidelista, Valiente says, which for the time being put an end to her visits to church.
Life took a precipitate turn in 1987, when, as a member of the workers' union at her school, Valiente spoke out against the director for firing four of her colleagues. She says that the four, who were black, were replaced with white teachers. Her protests provoked the wrath of the director and of higher Communist party officials, and as the months went by, she was fired three times, appealing each termination and being reinstated on each occasion. She claims that after the fourth time, in 1988, her husband was ordered by the party organization to kick her out of their house; it was inappropriate for him to be living with a counterrevolutionary. He followed orders and divorced her, leaving her homeless for three months. It was during that time, Valiente says, that she applied for a visa at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
She also staged a hunger strike outside the office of the Minister of Education, which was publicized by Pablo Reyes, a dissident whose interview with Valiente and little Cheila was broadcast on La Voz de la Fundaci centsn. It was the first word about Valiente on the mainland. Some months later, Reyes was convicted of "practicing independent journalism"; he is serving an eight-year prison term, according to other dissidents and his wife Vilma Fernandez, who arrived in Miami in late March.
By 1991, with Cuba's economy and national morale going from worse to nightmarish, Valiente had become part of the burgeoning underground opposition movement, meeting at homes to record denuncias and communicating by phone with Ninoska Perez Castell centsn, who keeps close contact with dozens of island dissidents. In November of that year, Valiente, Bertha Galan, and poet Marielena Cruz Varela founded their own opposition group, the Asociaci centsn de Madres por la Dignidad. (Of the three founders of Mothers for Dignity, only Cruz Varela remains in Cuba; she has abandoned activism. Galan emigrated to Miami this past June.)
The next year Valiente had a dream. "It was in June. I'll never forget it," she says, her eyes narrowing. "I was walking along the street in Havana when I came upon a group of people. Four men were carrying an image of the Virgin on their shoulders. It was in an area like the Malec centsn, not exactly the Malec centsn but a place close to the sea, and they were making a procession. Then there was a confrontation with people on the street and fighting began, and one of the men carrying the Virgin was hit and fell to the ground. The Virgin didn't fall, she tipped over, and I ran and took the place of the man who had fallen."
Valiente became obsessed by the idea of a procession of holy figures, a common Latin American religious motif and a tradition carried on inside many Catholic churches in Cuba at the time. "When I told members of my organization that I wanted what happened in the dream to really happen," Valiente recalls, "they told me it was madness because you didn't go out publicly with a saint. They said I'd be killed and everyone with me." But the madness began a month later, with a spirited call by Ninoska Perez Castell centsn on La Voz de la Fundaci centsn, accompanied by the strains of Willy Chirino's "Havana D.C." ("Havana After Castro"), which beseeches the virgins of Caridad, Regla, and Mercedes "to bring liberty to Cuba quickly."
On July 8, 1992, six women and a young man gathered with Valiente in the town of Regla, on an island just across the Bay of Havana. After a prayer at the church of the Virgin of Regla, the seven rode a launch back to the city and walked two dozen blocks under a hot afternoon sun to the Malec centsn, carrying signs calling for "freedom for the Virgin." Explains Valiente: "To ask for freedom for the Virgin is to ask for freedom for the people of Cuba."
State Security agents watched from a distance at first, Valiente recalls, admonishing the marchers that they were betraying the atheist people of Cuba. When the agents saw that Valiente was actually urging bystanders to "renew their faith" and that some seemed to be responding, police were dispatched to shoo the demonstrators away. At that point a crowd began to gather near the intersection of San Lazaro and Prado streets. Fearing a large-scale protest, the authorities packed Valiente and her followers into patrol cars and took them to the nearest police station. It was there, Valiente recounts with wonder, that "something strange happened." Six strong policemen were unable to force her into a jail cell while she clung to her figurine of the Virgin. Finally able to wrest the statuette from her hands, they managed to push her fully through the cell door.
The detainees were released early the next morning after paying 60-peso fines, with instructions to stop their nonsense. Another procession was soon set for the following month, on August 8. That day, Valiente says, she was preparing to leave for Regla when she found State Security agents surrounding her apartment. With the help of an unexpected distraction on the street, she managed to slip out unnoticed. As a gesture of thanks for her "escape," she adopted the Santeria initiation practice of dressing only in white for a full year. She has, however, vowed to wear white "until Cuba is free."
"After this suffering, when this repression started against me, I began to embrace both [Christianity and Santeria]," Valiente explains, adding that she does not consider herself a santera and does not identify herself with Santeria deities. "Suffering will make you embrace any faith, from wherever it comes. I began my peregrinations with the image of the Virgin of Regla. But inside me I have the Virgin of Regla and Yemaya. It's the same thing with most of the people of Cuba. So when we left the church on the peregrinations, we'd begin to sing to Yemaya."
In Miami Valiente encountered a sizable number of Catholics and santeros alike who disapproved of her liberal blending of traditions. Joe Garcia says CANF received a letter from a group of santeros who made it clear that Valiente didn't speak for them. There was also some resistance at Ermita de la Caridad when Valiente first called for exiles to join her in prayer there, according to Ninoska Perez Castell centsn. But the initial criticism has died down. Father Francisco Santana, who hosts a Radio Marti program called El cubano y su fe, meets and prays with Valiente, fully aware that not all church officials are as accepting of her religion. She has been a guest twice on his show, which she listened to on the island before her exile.
"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.
Valiente, meanwhile, continues her attacks on the enemy she sees hidden amid Miami's feuding exiles. "The things that are happening make me feel so depressed, so pessimistic," she asserted during an April 9 broadcast on Radio Mambi. "Some groups in exile attack groups inside Cuba because they don't like their leanings, and this lack of democratic orientation coming from the exiles to the groups in Cuba has caused much division and ultimately completely distorts the principal objective of all Cubans. The power plays, the arrogance, the personal interests A the only thing that sustains me here are the people who follow me, people of good faith who help me regain strength to continue in my mission."
Several of those adherents, along with a contingent of reporters and photographers, have gathered for a late-April press conference at Little Havana's Centro Vasco restaurant. Clad in a form-fitting ivory suit and cradling her Virgin, Valiente seems uncharacteristically withdrawn, despite the fact that she is here to announce an elaborate peregrinaje from Key West on Mother's Day, May 8. Looking melancholy and tired, Valiente speaks little, leaving Father Santana to describe in avid detail their plans to take a caravan to Cayo Hueso, board a boat or boats, and hold a candlelight vigil in international waters twelve miles from the port of Havana. In honor of Mother's Day, Santana says, the group will pray especially for the departure of children left in Cuba when their mothers fled to exile. While those prayers are rising, dissidents on the island plan to gather on Havana's shoreline and join their supplications with the exiles'. A large map on display at the restaurant contains two red pins -- one stuck at the tip of Florida, the other due south at Havana harbor.
Television and still cameras record an affectionate embrace and kiss between Santana and Valiente, whose smile is strained and whose eyes are veiled by some dark thought. It's impossible to tell whether she is thinking of Cheila, or of the Malec centsn, or of a thousand other reasons for feeling mournful about motherless children. She might be wondering about something so ordinary as who will give her a ride home, or wondering if maybe, after all, she should allow those two men in Havana to attempt a foolhardy rescue. But in the end, when she must say something, Valiente returns to the constant in her life, the miracle that sustains her. "I guarantee," she begins in a low voice that rises rhythmically, "I am sure, that the Virgin will be present on the Cuban coast on that night, and that the Cuban people will see her.