Cuban-American Dialogues

Article excerpt

THE CAMERA PANNED away from a garbage fire in the middle of the street and followed the young men who had set it. The men were calling to a nearby band of demonstrators. "The people are afraid they might be provocateurs, under orders from Castro," said the television announcer. "This is rowdier than most Miami traffic jams, but it isn't a riot; it's the beginning of a catharsis."

The disturbances that followed the removal of Elian Gonzalez from his Miami relatives' home by armed federal agents were indeed part of a catharsis, though not its beginning. The outpouring of emotion started months earlier, not on the streets but in homes and churches, away from the television cameras. Some people say they are angrier than they've been in years, but they are also talking and listening to each other more. If that continues, there is hope for dialogue within the Cuban exile community--which is probably prerequisite for dialogue with the rest of the city.

Of the more than 700,000 Cuban-Americans in metropolitan Miami, perhaps a third identify with the fervent anti-Castro old guard. At the other extreme, a small group (mostly younger and American-educated) favor normalizing political and economic relations with Cuba, although they remain critical of the Castro regime. In between are what some call the "silent majority," who visit or send money and material aid to friends and relatives on the island, but avoid confrontation with the old guard.

There is little public discussion among these groups. "We don't talk about dialogue," says Quaker peace advocate Eduardo Diaz. "Dialoguero has been a fighting word since the 1970s," he says, for it was a term applied to those who supported negotiations with Castro. Others point out that public disagreement was never an option for ordinary citizens in Cuba, and for Miami Cubans it seems disloyal--"like hanging out our underwear for everyone to see."

Families have their own ways of communicating across the divide. "We know everyone's viewpoint without making them say it," a college student told me. "By the end of dinner we all understand each other, and no one goes away angry."

I once heard two sisters talking about how they had persuaded their father to help pay for an expensive prescription that his brother in Cuba had asked for. "It was scary; I thought he would choke on his meat," said one sister. "He knew all along that we were sending Uncle money," the other reassured her. "It was hard this time because we couldn't do it alone, but you watch: next week he'll be asking how Uncle is doing."

With Elian it was hard to separate the language of politics from the language of the heart. At first he was a safe subject of conversation: an innocent, five-year-old child, plucked from the sea in a miraculous Thanksgiving Day rescue. Of course he would stay, and his father would find a way to join him; how could the immigration agents gainsay a miracle? But when Juan Miguel Gonzalez said he wanted his son back in Cuba, the conversation suddenly became complicated.

To deny the father's right meant overriding the cherished principle of patria potestad--parental or, more literally, paternal authority. For some exile leaders, that was easy to do, since they were struck by the irony of Juan Miguel invoking a right that in Cuba is routinely usurped by the government. But many people were still reluctant to abandon the principle. Said a Cuban-born priest: "You can see how much we care about Elian, if we're willing to go against patria potestad to save him."

Beneath this debate lay devastating memories of family separation. Some 14,000 Cuban children were sent away by their parents in the 1960s on a church-sponsored airlift called Operation Pedro Pan. Others were torn away from loved ones by Cuban officials, never to hear from them again; or by the raging sea, as Elian's mother was. Elian has been a reminder of how divided Cuban families are. …