Elian's Legacy

The divide, she argues, isn't solely along racial and ethnic lines. Despite what the polls say, the Cuban-American community is not monolithic in its thinking regarding Elian. A majority may believe the boy should remain in the United States, but many of those who believe he should stay are repulsed by the antics of the Miami relatives, the family's attorneys, and the hard-line exile leaders and politicians who seem intent on exploiting the child. Unfortunately that segment of the community has no voice.

The woman who wrote me the letter asked, "Why can't they appreciate the struggle our nation has been through to achieve certain rights?" My friend's answer is simple, and the fact that Cubans are referred to as exiles rather than immigrants reveals the heart of the problem. Unlike the immigrants who settled in New York or Boston, the Cubans who came to Miami never meant for it to become a melting pot in which they would be assimilated into American culture. "This is a group of people who never wanted to be assimilated," my friend maintains. "We never came here with the thought of staying here."

Bernardo Benes, a long-time Cuban activist and frequent critic of hard-line exiles, says he can understand why Anglos may be upset with the way elements of the Cuban-American community have handled the Elian affair, especially after Miamians have done so much to welcome and accept Cubans over the past four decades. "This community opened its arms to Cubans," he says. Now Cubans are talking about shutting down the airport and the seaport, blocking traffic on causeways, and reviling Attorney General Janet Reno as a communist and a traitor. Any gains made in bridging the gap between Cubans and non-Cubans, Benes says, have been destroyed: "What we have done in forty years has gone to hell in four months."

The Elian saga has torn a path through South Florida that will take years to mend
Bill Cooke
The Elian saga has torn a path through South Florida that will take years to mend

"Cubans control Miami," Benes goes on. "Whether people like it or not is really beside the point. We control everything." He likes to joke that the only decision Anglos get to make in Miami these days is who plays in the annual Orange Bowl game. "That is the power left to Anglos in this town," Benes laughs.

Benes believes the real tragedy of this event is that the Cuban-American community is in fact making Castro stronger, not weaker. "Fidel Castro is laughing at all of this," he says. Castro would like nothing better than to have Elian stay in the United States, because as long as the boy is in Miami, he has something to rail about and a rallying point for his countrymen. As long as the world's attention is focused on Elian and not on the repression of political dissidents in Cuba, Castro is thrilled. Amazingly, Benes says, this debacle over Elian has placed Castro in the role of being "the great unifier of families" when the truth is he has always been a great destroyer of them.

Elian is a tool for Castro and he is a tool for segments of the exile community. Both are using him to amass and maintain power within their respective constituencies. Yet few Cuban-Americans are willing to publicly condemn the way politicians such as Penelas and Carollo exploit the fears and pain of their own people. It sickens me to see the old women, day after day, lining the barricades near Elian's Little Havana home, rosaries in hand, praying for a miracle. Their value to the politicians is that they vote; their weakness is that they are terrified at the prospect of dying in the United States and being buried in a cemetery on Flagler Street rather than in the towns where they were born.

While it has become fashionable in the past week for Cuban Americans to portray themselves as victims of "exile bashing" in the media and to brand their critics as bigots, they would do well to examine their own behavior. I'm tired of seeing Carollo and Penelas, among others, act shocked and offended when reporters ask them whether there will be civil unrest if Elian is returned to his father. (See Jim Mullin's column for a list of reasons why this is a valid question.) Miami Cubans have never rioted and would never riot, Carollo and Penelas repeatedly declare with indignation. Since this is a time for candor, let's recognize that they are really saying this: "Don't worry about the Cubans. We're not like the blacks; we're better than that. We won't burn down our own homes and businesses." If Carollo and Penelas have been making that case on a subliminal level, it has been stated explicitly by others on Spanish-language radio. As my friend said, "There is no moral high ground for anyone."

So where do we go from here? What shape does a post-Elian Miami take? My Cuban-American friend suggests we need to do the same sorts of things that took place in the Sixties in Miami, when Cubans first arrived. "We are going to have to find ways to bring people together and talk, one-on-one," she says. "We have to start over, and either we learn to live together or this place goes belly up."

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