he recent visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba gave the world an
unusual glimpse of the last officially communist nation in the West. The
implausible location of that country, just a short hop from American shores, was
highlighted by the thousands of American pilgrims on the island for the
occasion. The two old men who warmly greeted each other on the tarmac of
José Martí International Airport could not be more different, but
they also know each other. The pope knows communism intimately from his Polish
and Eastern European days; Fidel knows the Church intimately from being brought
up Catholic by Jesuit priests. They dueled with great finesse during those five
days, trading subtle barbs at each other's ideology. Only on one point did they
firmly coincidethe immorality of the United States's economic encirclement of
Cuba and the need to bring it to an end. It was this common point that actually
opened the doors of the island to the pope, creating a political turning point
after almost four decades of iron dictatorship.
Only a few weeks earlier, the most prominent Cuban exile leader, Jorge Mas
Canosa, had died of cancer in Miami. His death also marked a political turning
point. It is but a slight exaggeration to say that under Mas's influence, Miami
began to acquire the features of a Latin American dictatorship, opposite in
ideology but similar in ruthless effectiveness to the communist regime that it
opposed. The American trade embargo that the pope and Castro jointly denounced
in Havana would probably have been lifted long ago had it not been for Mas and
his powerful supporters. Although the pope overtly decried Washington's
intransigence, his message was really aimed at Miami, where the roots of that
While explicitly addressing the confrontation between two countries, the pope
tacitly sought to reconcile the Cuban war across the Strait of Florida. For
decades, charismatic leaders at both ends of the strait have used all available
means to stay in power and crush their opponents. In Miami no less than in Cuba,
the rule of law takes second place to the leaders' conviction in the rightness
of their cause and their own historical role. Mas, like Castro, was a faithful
practitioner of the old Latin American motto: For my friends, everything; for my
enemies, the law.
It would be inaccurate, however, to portray Mas and his supporters as a
criminal gang. He and the members of the organization that he created, the Cuban
American National Foundation (CANF), are politically sophisticated extremists
with a tight grip on the Cuban-American electorate. They direct Cuban Americans
to vote overwhelmingly for hand-picked candidates, who purvey hard-line anti-Castro
policies in Tallahassee and Washington. Farther afield, CANF's money has
helped elect presidents and has heavily influenced the outcome of political
struggles in Latin America and Africa, always on the conservative side. And,
most importantly, the foundation has succeeded in imposing its views on the
Clinton administration, literally dictating its policy toward Cuba.
For newcomers to Caribbean politics, the puzzling question is how an
organization of first-generation immigrants, not a majority even in Miami,
gained so much power. How did it restrict freedom of expression in Miami by
dictating local ordinances that forbid public appearances by Cuban artists and
sports teams? How did it bring the federal government to finance radio and
television stations dedicated to beaming anti-Castro propaganda to the island?
How did it persuade Congress to pass the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity
Act of 1996 (the Helms-Burton Act), which directs the U.S. government to impose
sanctions on foreign companies that trade with Cuba, thereby eliciting immediate
opposition from Canada, Mexico, France, and other major U.S. allies?
In answer to these questions, outside observers have commonly focused on
Cuban exile leaders' disregard for fair play and ruthlessness in pursuing their
goals. In 1992, the Miami Herald ran an editorial opposing the bill
sponsored by New Jersey Congressman (now Senator) Bob Torricelli, a liberal
Democrat, which aimed at tightening the existing embargo against Cuba. The
Herald's opposition to this bill infuriated CANF, which had donated money
to Torricelli. Mas went to Miami's Spanish radio stations to denounce the
newspaper as an enemy of Cuban exiles, likening it to Granma, Cuba's
official daily, in its suppression of dissenting opinions. This was followed by
a public intimidation campaign in which 60 Miami public buses were decked with
ads in English and Spanish reading "I DON'T BELIEVE THE MIAMI HERALD." Destruction of
dozens of the newspaper's selling stands and death threats to its personnel
followed. Although the Herald's editors gallantly resisted this
offensive, the paper trod much more carefully thereafter when addressing CANF's
In the same spirit, Mas and his supporters never hesitated to brand their
congressional opponents and South Florida critics as stooges of Fidel Castro and
friends of communism. Their influence over a powerful media apparatus made these
charges stick, at least in South Florida.
ROOTS OF CUBAN-AMERICAN POWER
This Caribbean McCarthyism was not an instant success, however. Nor were
its eventual achievements due solely to ruthlessness. The roots of the Miami
political story go back to the fateful years of the early 1960s when the United
States and the Soviet Union squared off over Cuba's revolution. The political
turmoil following Castro's rise to power expelled much of the Cuban upper and
middle classes, which fled, for the most part, to South Florida. This population
had three defining traits. It was skillful at business, bringing with it
professional and managerial experience and, sometimes, considerable capital. It
was savvy about American ways because Cuba's longtime dependence on the United
States taught local elites how the country to the north actually worked; many of
them had gone to the United States to get their professional degrees, and others
had extensive business ties with American companies. Finally, dispossession and
expulsion turned the exiles into implacable enemies of socialism and, in
particular, Cuban communism.
At first, the displaced Cubans counted on the support of the United States to
return them to their home country. Americans had intervened innumerable times in
Latin America, often for lesser reasons. A communist regime 90 miles from U.S.
shores seemed unlikely to last. With this in mind, many early
émigrés thought of their stay in South Florida as a temporary
exile. They had not reckoned, however, with the political currents of the Cold
War, in which Cuba played an increasingly central part.
Cold War tensions produced three American decisions that struck anticommunist
Caribbeans as successive betrayals. First, an invasion brigade of Cuban exiles
was abandoned in the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Second, a pact was signed with the
Soviet Union, which took Soviet missiles out of Cuba in 1962 and committed the
United States to rein in any further military attacks by exile forces against
Castro. Third, the exiles' last-gasp attempt to organize an invasion force
outside the United States came to an ignominious end in 1964 when American
authorities alerted their British counterparts, who promptly located and
captured the expedition in a Bahamian key. All three events took place during
Democratic administrations, first Kennedy's and then Johnson's, at a time when
the exile leadership dealing with Washington was dominated by moderate pre-Castro politicians.
he reaction to these disappointments was a decisive shift toward
right-wing radicalism. Nothing but the most intransigent anticommunist stance
would be acceptable afterward. There was not a single redeeming feature in
Castro's government; everything that harmed it and its allies was just and
proper. The West in general and the United States government in particular were
too soft on communism and were full of fellow travelers who had to be identified
and denounced. The half million Cubans living in South Florida by the end of the
1960s coalesced around these positions with remarkable fervor. Still, their
political influence was initially small. The exiles could not vote, and many
were still poor, having neglected their affairs in the expectation of a prompt
return to their island.
In the 1970s the exiles struggled to overcome their double defeat: first by
Castro in Cuba, then by two successive Democratic administrations in the United
States. As they became eligible to vote, the Cubans lined up solidly behind the
Republican Party, long a minor political force in South Florida, which in turn
came to dominate local and state elections. Former professionals and business
owners now put their skills to use, climbing the corporate ladder or refounding
their old Havana firms in Miami. Cuban-American executives reached senior
positions in such companies as Dow Chemical, Coca-Cola, Citibank, and
NationsBank. Others established a wide array of new firms. A Cuban-American
economy surged in Miami.
With increasing economic and political power, Cuban-American leaders now
turned to their paramount project, the overthrow of Fidel Castro. The 1980s
marked the mise-en-scène of CANF, led from the start by Mas, and
the mass entry of Cubans into American electoral politics. As a result, two
Cuban-American members of Congress from South Florida and one from New Jersey
(where a second large Cuban-American concentration exists) were elected and lost
no time in forcefully articulating the exiles' views in Congress. Moreover,
Cuban-American money funded a powerful anti-Castro lobby. Barred from plotting a
direct assault by the U.S.-Soviet agreement reached at the time of the missile
crisis, Cuban-American leaders aimed to shape American policy to isolate and
harass Castro's regime.
To this end, the exiles enlisted a number of senators and congressmen from
both sides of the aisle. Congressman Torricelli was persuaded by CANF largesse
to sponsor the bill tightening the U.S. embargo against Cuba. The resulting
Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 prevented subsidiaries of American companies from
trading with Cuba and barred ships that had transported goods to or from the
island from touching American ports for six months. When this did not prove
sufficient to bring about Castro's downfall, two conservative Republicans, Jesse
Helms and Dan Burton, were brought aboard to ratchet up the embargo. The Helms-Burton
legislation, signed into law in mid-1996, was dubbed the "Adios, Fidel"
Act. By discouraging non-U.S. companies from doing business with the island, it
sought to provoke an economic collapse that would produce a popular uprising.
Despite the many diplomatic difficulties that it has created with America's
allies in Europe and Latin America, the act has so far failed to meet its
The extraordinary influence wielded by CANF and the rest of the Cuban-American
lobby in Washington does not rest solely on money and block voting.
CANF also draws political strength from a pair of ideological factors. The
exiles gained from the fit between their single-minded determination and the
broader goals of United States foreign policy during the Cold War. Cuban
Americans may be extremists, but they were our fanatics insofar as their animus
against Castro coincided with the American goal of unseating communism
everywhere. The continuing power of this affinity was evident after the downing
of two Miami planes by Cuban MIGs in February 1996. Although the planes belonged
to an exile organization and were piloted by exile Cubans, the public perceived
the planes as American, and the attack as anti-American aggression by Castro.
That perception greatly aided passage of the Helms-Burton Act, which the Clinton
administration had resisted up to that point. Once the drift of public opinion
became clear, Clinton responded by endorsing the legislation.
Moreover, Miami's Cubans benefited from a diffuse sense in official
Washington that they had been left in the lurch too many times and that previous
disappointment bolstered their current claims for redress. The Cuban exiles'
perennial efforts to make life more difficult for Castro received a sympathetic
hearing in many government and congressional quarters. Their strong
anticommunism and bitter history got them a foot in the door. Money and votes
did the rest.
POWER AND PARADOX
Mas and his followers walked the corridors of power comfortably, winning
victories that sometimes conflicted with sound political sense. The American-funded,
anti-Castro TV is jammed by the Cuban government and is utterly
ineffective except as a symbol of anticommunist commitment. The Helms-Burton law
has stirred considerable international resentment, including a challenge in the
World Court. But these excesses have also triggered a backlash against the Cuban
lobby that, in combination with Mas's death, may considerably weaken CANF. As
the Economist recently put it, "[T]he day of [American] presidents
whispering and bowing when the [CANF] calls will be over."
Objections to CANF's excesses have come from three quarters: the American
public, Cuba, and the exile community itself. The spectacle of a small nation
being incrementally strangled by a powerful neighbor has triggered a grassroots
mobilization of American churches and humanitarian groups to repeal the embargo
and bring aid to the island. These groups have carried tons of food, medicines,
and other supplies to Cuba, often in direct violation of the embargo. The same
groups are working with moderates in Congress, both Republican and Democrat, to
rescind Helms-Burton and restore normal relations with Cuba.
Back on the island, the figure of Mas and the success of Helms-Burton have
been a godsend to communist hard-liners. Deprived of generous Soviet support in
the early 1990s, and facing the reality of global communist collapse and growing
discontent among their own people, Cuban leaders were handed a trump card by
their Miami adversaries: nationalism. Unlike the former Eastern European
satellite countries where anticommunism and (anti-Soviet) nationalism went
together, in Cuba a strong and long-standing sentiment against subordination to
American power helps keep the communist regime in place. Castro and his
collaborators never tire of raising the specter of the "Miami Mafia" returning
to power in Cuba, or of laying blame for Cuba's suffering at CANF's
Hence, the simplistic goal guiding the embargo and its successive
refinements, which is to create enough internal discontent to provoke a popular
uprising, has been ably turned on its head by the Cuban leadership. Perennial
scarcity has become an instrument of legitimation, and evidence of American
hostility and of Cuba's indomitable resolve to resist.
This turn of events has not been lost on the Cuban exile community. A growing
number of Cuban Americans are questioning the wisdom of present policies. It is
increasingly inescapable that the embargo has backfired. Eighteen months after
the "Adios, Fidel" Act, the law's inadvertent bolstering of hard-liners inside
Cuba has only reduced whatever space might have existed for dissent. As Castro's
regime persists, right-wing predictions of his imminent political demise sound
increasingly ludicrous. Perhaps for this reason, the actual behavior of ordinary
Cuban Americans is increasingly at odds with their leaders' proclamations.
Calls for the island's complete isolation by CANF and Cuban Americans in
Congress are undermined by their presumed supporters who send an unending stream
of remittances and supplies to their relatives back home. The latest reliable
estimates put Cuban-American remittances at close to $1 billion per year, far
exceeding the sum total of private contributions by charitable organizations to
Cuba worldwide. The Cuban economy has grown increasingly reliant on the help of
its expatriate community to sustain both popular living standards and the
country's foreign exchange reserves.
THE END OF THE MIAMI MAFIA?
The Castro regime is thus in the peculiar, but not uncomfortable,
position of being supported by its own enemies. Politically, it gains by the
nationalist legitimacy that the embargo provides. Economically, it is bolstered
by the remittances that undermine that same embargo.
At the same time, rifts are growing among Cuban Americans tired of marching
one day in Miami to urge strengthened sanctions against Castro and lining up the
next day to send money and goods to friends and family on the island. The pope's
ringing denunciation of the trade embargo against Cuba has heartened Cuban
Americans already working against CANF's policies. In Miami, large groups of
Cuban Americans, including many who traveled to the island for the papal visit,
are meeting publicly to consider ways to break the economic blockade. Seeking to
stem the tide, CANF has come up with a proposal to send limited food aid to Cuba
under the "Food for Peace" program (Public Law 480). The foundation has
recruited the ever-dependable Senator Helms to propose this initiative to
Congress, with the promise that the food would be distributed only by private
charities. Predictably, the Cuban government rejected the initiative, indicating
its interest in "trade, not alms." More revealingly, the proposal was also
rejected by all three Cuban-American members of Congress, who see in it a
dangerous softening of their traditional hard line.
This rift between CANF and its usual spokespeople comes at a time when
another congressional initiative to lift the embargo on trade of food and
medicines with Cuba is gathering considerable momentum. Sponsored by Senator
Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Mexican-American Congressman Esteban Torres,
it has gained the support of some 90 cosponsors, powerful unions, and the newly
created U.S.-Cuba Chamber of Commerce. Perhaps more importantly, it is being
actively promoted by emerging Miami-based Cuban-American organizations, such as
the Cuban Committee for Democracy (CCD) and Cambio Cubano (Cuban Change). These
groups are forcefully conveying to Congress that moderates in the exile
community are ready to end the vengeful rigidity of past policies.
If successful, these efforts will open a new chapter in U.S.-Cuban relations.
In pursuit of hard-line policies, the United States has come to loggerheads with
Canada, Mexico, France, and other important allies without advancing one inch
toward democratizing Cuba. The universal consensus, which Miami's extreme right
has so far held at bay, is that American goals will be better served by open
exchange that will deprive the Cuban regime of the nationalism card and bolster
Cuban reformers in search of a peaceful transition to democracy.