Socialism or Suntan, Part 2

Is it a harmless political party, or is it a cult?

Read Part 1

If you really want to ponder the strange and wonderful world of Florida politics, forget the ongoing Gore-Bush drama. Look instead to Cuba. As a reminder that not everyone has given up on Boris-and-Natasha cold war games, this past week saw the opening of the trial of five alleged Cuban spies. Meanwhile four of Miami's most notoriously violent Cuban exiles surfaced in Panama City, arrested as suspects in a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro. It was straight out of a vintage Mission Impossible episode: fake passports, a suitcase full of cash, eighteen pounds of plastic explosives, and allegations of aid from the Cuban American National Foundation.

Even little Elian grabbed a headline cameo in the form of a reverse repatriation. Key Largo's Arletis Blanco left behind an aggrieved ex-husband as she grabbed their five-year-old son, jumped in a speedboat, and landed in Pinar del Río. Depending on which version of her story she chose to tell, Blanco was fleeing either charges of embezzling $150,000 from her employer or death threats from gun-running exiles tied to Alpha 66. (Even Granma seemed a tad skeptical of the latter tale.)

Miami's Socialist Workers Party bookstore offers up fiery words and fruit slices; (above) SWP presidential candidate James Harris
Steve Satterwhite
Miami's Socialist Workers Party bookstore offers up fiery words and fruit slices; (above) SWP presidential candidate James Harris

The end result of all this drama? Some reporters seem determined to find a Cuban connection to each and every local event. Witness the press focus on the November 22 demonstration inside the Miami-Dade Elections Department, a fracas that both Al Gore and Joe Lieberman publicly cited as an act of physical intimidation against the county's canvassing board. Photos of the yelling, glass-banging protesters would seem to implicate out-of-town Republicans (the beefy frames and severe haircuts were a dead giveaway), yet many reporters went sniffing after Cuban-exile suspects: The New York Times puzzled over a cheerleading Radio Mambí newscaster at county hall, and a Washington Post scribe declared in that Cuban-American activists had craftily thrown the election to Bush as revenge for losing Elian (a theory echoed by Castro, who was thoughtful enough to suggest sending observers to Florida).

What has emerged is a portrait of shared delusions. One side of the Florida Straits sees el exilio's hand pulling all the strings; the other is still looking under its bed for communists.

Fringe players in the exile community certainly are willing to hold up their end of the equation. Just flip on Spanish-language talk radio, or page through some of the wackier periodiquitos, such as Grita, which labels President Clinton an "extreme left-winger" and promises an exposé of "los Marxistas de Brickell."

But where are Miami's homegrown Fidelistas? Will the real "extreme left-wingers" please stand up?

A mid-September meeting of Miami's chapter of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) emits a vibe closer to a potluck dinner than that of a collective seeking to, in their words, "overthrow the criminal capitalist system" and "emulate the Cuban revolution." Twenty people are gathered inside the SWP's Pathfinder bookstore on NE Second Avenue just north of the Design District. They're a mix of Anglos and Latinos, mostly in their thirties and forties, sitting on folding chairs, passing around fruit slices, cookies, and Pepsi.

Only one figure seems to fit the stereotypical image of a guerrilla ready for action: a wild-eyed man in his early twenties with a shock of black hair and two days' worth of stubble, clad in army-surplus shorts and a faded T-shirt with the Sandinista acronym FSLN emblazoned across his chest. He quickly slugs down a few Dixie cups of wine and begins scribbling furiously in a notebook. Perhaps this is the party's modern-day Che Guevara, mapping out plans for a base camp in the Everglades and midnight raids into Kendall.

No such luck. It soon becomes clear that no one has any idea who this would-be comandante is, and his presence is beginning to unsettle several SWP members. The store's shelves may be filled with titles such as Pathfinder Was Born with the October Revolution and From Moncada to Victory: Fidel Castro's Political Strategy, but that doesn't mean the party is entertaining notions of armed struggle any time soon. This evening's guest of honor, SWP presidential candidate James Harris, harbors few illusions of an upset come November; his campaign is strictly for propaganda purposes.

Harris's speech also is free of any fist-shaking oratory, establishing a persona akin to that of a middle-age math teacher laying out an algebra theorem. There's talk of capitalism's coming collapse, organizing the workers, a few asides to Malcolm X's take on elections, but little real Sturm und Drang. After a half-hour, with Harris still droning on, it's a bit hard to imagine that this pleasant fellow has devoted his life to building "a revolutionary party of the type Lenin and the Bolsheviks constructed."

What's most striking about the SWP, however, isn't its slavish worship of the Cuban revolution, but rather its explicit rejection of immediately waging guerrilla war, the very tenet of Che and Fidel that appealed to so many young radicals as the anti-Vietnam War movement heated up. In The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, Todd Gitlin recalls the excitement with which French writer Régis Debray's Revolution in the Revolution, an interpretation of Guevara, hit the scene in the summer of 1967.

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