July 5, 1999
Sun-Sentinel July 05, 1999
The Cuban-American community had its baptism of fire last week, actually water and pepper -spray, fired by the U.S. Coast Guard at Cubans on a rowboat approaching the Florida coast. This violent rejection by American official forces of Cubans fleeing the island for the promise of freedom in the United States, and the subsequent demonstrations by Cuban-Americans that tied up traffic in Miami Beach, brought Cuban-Americans into a kind of American mainstream. The Latino community.
Cuban-Americans are separated from other U.S. Latinos by a big political wall. This is obvious to anyone who has worked within national Latino organizations and most acute in Congress, where ultra-liberal Latino legislators, some of them friendly with the Castro government, and rabidly anti-Castro Cuban-Americans butt heads periodically.
They, we, are the products of history. The very notion of a Latino minority with a political agenda is the result of the agitation of the late '60s and early '70s. In that era, Puerto Ricans in the Northeast and Chicanos in the West followed the lead of black radicalism, even creating organizations like the Young Lords that were mirror images of the Black Panthers.
The rhetoric of revolution dominated the discourse of the time. Demonstrations were the order of the day. Solidarity with the most oppressed elements of the Latino population was the keystone. Violence, more suffered than given, was a fact of life. Sympathy lay with the guerrillas south of the border and with the Latin country run by guerrillas, Cuba. Socialism was a desirable alternative.
Times changed and beret-wearing revolutionaries became Democratic candidates in sober suits. But Latino politics stayed left of center. To Cuban-Americans, all this sounded like the oppressive system back home, so they wanted no truck with it. Republicans rather than Democrats, businessfolk rather than community organizers, lobbyists rather than guerrillas, Cuban-Americans went their separate way.
The politics of Miami's Cuban community was represented by the reverence for the glorious quest of Bay of Pigs, and by the right-wing intransigence of the Cuban-American National Foundation led by the late Jorge Mas Canosa, a Bay of Pigs veteran.
Opposition to the Castro regime did not wane, but in the past few years it began taking radically different forms. An organization that sent boats to the Florida Straits to drop flowers on Cuban waters. An organization that flew civilian planes to rescue Cuban rafters and that ventured over the Cuban mainland to drop pamphlets. An organization that engaged in acts of civil disobedience in the streets of Miami to call attention to the Cuban predicament.
Flowers. Pamphlets. Civil disobedience. The '60s had finally arrived in Cuban Miami. The new freedom fighters were not the armed brigadiers of Bay of Pigs, but non-violent followers of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. With the brutal downing of the pamphlet-dropping planes of the Brothers to the Rescue organization, the new militants had their martyrs, the Cuban government lost face internationally, and the exile community pushed a Democratic administration to tighten the embargo.
Still, the differences between Cubans and other Latinos persisted. For the Latino political consciousness was not forged fighting an enemy in a Latin home country, but fighting the establishment stateside. The Cuban agenda was elsewhere. Until recently. For years, the rafters' situation has been bringing it all back home, whether it was the treatment of Cuban detainees on American territory in Guantanamo or at the Krome Detention Center in Florida.
Last week's incident takes it to the street, or, since this is South Florida, to the beach. Violent official overreaction. Peaceful but forceful street demonstrations. And the painful acknowledgement that for all the highly touted Cuban Success Story, many Cubans know, deep in their hearts, how we are seen as Others, how we are closer to Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and Central Americans than we admit. Welcome to the U.S. No es facil it ain't easy as we say back home. But it's worth a struggle.
Enrique Fernandez's column appears Monday. He can be reached at email@example.com or at 954-356-4797.
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