Within segments of the Cuban-American community there is a belief that Elian Gonzalez is a messiah of sorts, protected by God and sent here to expedite the fall of Fidel Castro. Unfortunately I don't see it that way. Elian's greatest impact has always been centered on Miami, not Havana. Through no fault of his own, this six-year-old boy has proven to be the single greatest destructive force in South Florida since Hurricane Andrew.

At this point in the saga, whether Elian returns to Cuba or stays in the United States is largely irrelevant. His future is the least of our worries. This controversy has dispelled any illusions that Miami was maturing as a community, or that it has earned the right to think of itself as a world-class city. Miami is a mess. Twenty years after the turmoil of the Mariel boatlift and the Liberty City riots, we continue to be deeply divided along racial and ethnic lines, no closer to understanding each other and seemingly resigned to the idea that we never will. As a result Miami can be brought to its knees by a single, ethnically charged event.

With so much attention placed on the minutiae of Elian's legal battles, there has been little time to reflect on what this affair tells us about ourselves. Still, certain truths are being reinforced by this crisis, most notably the chronic dearth of leadership. What passes for "political courage" in this town truly is frightening.

Evidently Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas and Miami Mayor Joe Carollo have come to believe that holding forth as masters of ceremonies every day at the block party in front of Elian's Little Havana home can be equated to leadership. Carollo and Penelas are accomplishing nothing but getting their mugs on television. Their presence doesn't maintain calm; it only creates the dangerous perception that the highest elected officials in South Florida endorse Lazaro Gonzalez's criminal defiance of the Attorney General of the United States. All they are doing is emboldening Lazaro, feeding his already inflated ego and his misguided sense of right and wrong.

I'm sure it must be fun rubbing elbows with Gloria Estefan and Andy Garcia in the Gonzalez living room, but what Penelas and Carollo need to do is convince Lazaro to deliver Elian peacefully into the hands of the boy's father. Please stop telling me that Elian's Miami relatives have respect for the law when we all saw and heard Lazaro rebelliously declare that marshals would have to take the child by force.

Besides a pathetic lack of leadership, other serious flaws in our community have emerged. For one thing the level of anger and bitterness among Anglos toward Cuban Americans is much greater than I ever imagined. We all knew it was there, but until Elian arrived I don't think anyone appreciated its depth. The reasons for this anger are numerous, many of them stemming from the wrong-headed notion that Miami was a great city until "they" began arriving from Cuba. The fantasy that pre-Cuban Miami was ideal is as ludicrous as the belief that Cuba was a model of democracy prior to Castro taking power.

But there also is justification for the exasperation felt by Anglos. Whenever Cuban Americans try to excuse their behavior by proclaiming they are a passionate, emotional people, or that non-Cubans will never understand their pain and suffering, it infuriates me as well. Whether intended or not, those proclamations are tinged with arrogance. The message actually being conveyed is that Cuban Americans believe Cubans are special, Cubans are unique. The problem is that once you start down that path, declaring yourself distinct from every other group of people, you also make yourself a target and isolate yourself from the rest of the community. That's when things get dangerous.

If repeated often enough, with enough conviction, people may begin to believe what Cuban Americans are saying: that only Cubans can understand the pain of the Cuban diaspora. If people begin to believe that, then non-Cubans will stop trying to understand Cuban Americans. Once that happens we will all be lost.

Over the weekend a woman wrote me a letter that is typical of many I've received recently. She noted that "the Elian case has brought out a sense of hurt" she didn't realize she harbored. "I don't understand how Americans have become the enemy to this section of the population," she offered. "Most Americans can, or have tried, to appreciate [Cuban-American] culture and have even learned new languages. Why can't they appreciate the struggle that our nation has been through to achieve certain rights? My grandparents came here from Italy through Ellis Island in the 1930s, learned and appreciated American history, lifestyle, and language. They never felt the need to fight against the very society that had given them the opportunity to prosper."

In the course of writing this, I called a friend whose opinion I value. Her parents are from Cuba but she was born in the United States. She told me she has been in a deep depression for months over not just the fate of Elian but the havoc this melodrama has wreaked on Miami. "It has unearthed a lot of crap, a lot of resentment," she said.

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."

"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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