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Castro. End of discussion

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Castro stops all thought, discussion or debate in Miami. Whatever offends him must be extolled publicly and vociferously. Anything that could please him must be denounced.

Understanding the autohysteria in Miami over Elián Gonzalez requires that one understand that.

Most Americans go weeks at a time without thinking of Fidel Castro, but the Cuban-Americans of Miami obsess over him. If he weren’t where he is, they think they wouldn’t be where they are.

The Holy Saturday raid in which government officials reunited Elián with his father was seen as a victory for Castro and further proof to Miami’s Cuban exiles that the world is against them. Uncle Lazaro had said Attorney General Janet Reno would have to use force to get the boy. Dozens of people told any TV camera or reporter who happened by that they would willingly die to keep Reno and, by extension, Castro, from getting the boy. Reno used force, and no one had to die. Both factors contributed to the sense of betrayal in the community.

Cubans govern Miami and Hialeah, Florida’s third- and sixth-largest cities. With the refugees from hurricanes and the surrogate wars against Castro, they give 2.2 million-person Miami-Dade County a Spanish-speaking majority. A few old timers and displaced Yankees remain, but they -- locally called “Anglos” -- amount to only 21 percent.

Miami Cubans are predominantly Catholic, and the saga of Elián was told in the images of Catholic spirituality. But it’s not a form encouraged in Rome, or at, say, Notre Dame. That the 6-year-old survived the raft wreck that took his mother and six others was, in secular metaphor, a miracle. Miami Cubans see it as a nonmetaphorical miracle.

It had a biblical echo of Moses among the bulrushes. To the basic story, dolphins were added to keep his inner tube afloat and sharks away. The boy, the dolphins and the Blessed Mother can be seen in a 15-foot mural quickly painted in the modest neighborhood where Elián’s distant uncle lived. Elián Gonzalez, 6, became “the miracle boy.”

With a Lourdes, or maybe a Joan of Arc, in his archdiocese, Archbishop John Favalora did the smart thing. He kept his head down. When Pope John Paul went to Cuba in 1998, the archdiocese lined up a cruise for Catholics.

The Cuban community howled, and the archbishop had to call off the cruise.

The pope thought he was on a pilgrimage, but Miami Cubans were wary. They hoped he had a secret plan to overthrow Castro, but they feared he might be a secret Fidelista. (It could happen. All politicians are Fidelistas until they prove otherwise.)

Either way, John Paul’s visit put the hypocritical tyrant on the world’s front pages. And that was bad. They made the best of it, but they didn’t like it.

If the pope is suspect, an archbishop doesn’t have a chance.

The first wave of emigrants, in 1960, was like an exodus from Cambridge, Princeton, Greenwich and Palo Alto. It cleaned Cuba out of professionals, academics, entrepreneurs and engineers -- people who make things go.

They brought the best of home with them. Centro Vasco restaurant -- since firebombed for booking a 73-year-old Cuban singer who didn’t denounce Castro sufficiently -- moved lock, stock and wine cellar from Havana to Miami. The Jesuits moved their Belem prep school lock, stock and classroom crucifix. Havana’s elite charity, the League Against Cancer, moved its fund-raising balls to Miami area country clubs. Shops sprang up to sell the tiny cups of concentrated caffeine Cubans call coffee.

Cubans continued to come. Another great wave arrived in 1980, when Castro emptied his prisons and dared President Carter to turn away the boats. That group has been here 20 years now, and guess what? Except for a few who went from Castro’s prisons to ours, it has become middle class.

Ability to speak Spanish went from an asset for Miami Anglos to a necessity. The most important news media are the four Spanish radio stations playing constantly in public venues in Little Havana.

The crowds weren’t large at the home of Lazaro Gonzalez (Elián’s great uncle) most of the time. But when the radio stations go on DEFCON-1 with rumors that “Clintonistas” are about to seize the boy, thousands gather within minutes.

There are four generations of Cubans. Sometimes the third, the one born here, seems to be different. In the mid-1980s, the author T.D. Allman described driving by rows of new homes, each with a Buick, Chevy, BMW or Volvo in the driveway. The Buicks and Chevys, Allman observed, identified the homeowners as Cubans. Anglo yuppies drove the imports.

Going native is harder than that. When something happens to energize the older generations, the younger ones revert to blood.

The older Cubans lost their homeland. Veterans of the Bay of Pigs, who were trapped on the beach and chained in Castro’s prisons, are still alive and active. The young folks feel that they had it too easy compared to their elders. Family feeling and guilt coalesce when something happens.

In Miami something always happens. A raft arrives. The pope visits Cuba. Castro responds to a new tug on his beard. A few years ago, a pilot from Miami managed to drop leaflets on Havana, which might seem impossible if he stayed outside the international 12-mile limit. “The wind carried them,” he said.

Nelson Mandela was snubbed by the Miami City Commission for saying a good word for the dictator, who had said a good word for Mandela when no American president would. African-Americans responded with a boycott. Unmoved, Cubans said the African-Americans just don’t understand.

“Everybody here has his own Cossacks chasing him,” my friend Betsy Willeford said back when the population was more evenly balanced. But Cubans think their Cossack is unique. I lost a friend forever just by remarking that Lech Walesa couldn’t have toppled a communist government from a coffee shop in New York.

In a county where Cubans number in the hundreds of thousands, the numbers at Uncle Lazaro’s house seldom reached 100. People had to be at work. On weekends, the vigil had the elements of a street fair, with Gloria Estefan performing free. But make no mistake. The faithful few spoke for the community. They were more flamboyant than the others in their protestations that they were willing to die for the miracle boy, but in Miami flamboyance is a virtue.

For most Americans, the question was, should a 6-year-old be returned to his father? In Miami it was, should a miracle boy be given back to Castro? All debate ended with the last word of the question. Castro.

Tom Blackburn is an editorial writer and columnist with The Palm Beach Post.

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2000