Having lived in Miami for almost a quarter of a century, I know that newcomers to this city are usually subjected to a blunt, fierce interrogation that centers on a single question: “Are you in favor of the Castro dictatorship or against it?” A person’s answer determines on the spot whether he is seen as a friend or an enemy of Miami’s community of Cuban exiles. I call this rite the Miami baptism.
Ozzie Guillen, the new manager of the Miami Marlins baseball team, recently told a reporter for Time magazine that he loved and admired Fidel Castro, which deeply offended many Cuban exiles and Cuban-Americans living in Miami. When the story broke earlier this month, the anger from Marlins fans was such that Guillen apologized and the team suspended him for five games.
Anyone in a prominent position in Miami — politicians, diplomats, athletes, artists — can be sure that journalists and exiled Cubans will question them. Answering “I don’t know” or “Let me think about it for a while” is unacceptable.
For the Cuban exile community, knowing who is with you and who is against you is a matter of survival. The hundreds of thousands of Cubans who escaped the communist dictatorship, leaving behind everything they possessed, have endured a great deal of pain and suffering. Their question is intended to remind people about the regime’s brutality while at the same time forging new alliances, with a view to bringing about the regime’s eventual, unavoidable end.
Unavoidable because there is no Castroism without Fidel and Raul, and the brothers are now in their 80s. Unfortunately, the upheavals that have unseated dictators and tyrants around the world have not touched the Castros. The 53 years of their bloody dictatorship, during which the two men have decided the destinies of millions, have been marked by repression, lack of liberty and the absolute absence of democracy.
Miami’s Cuban community is relentless on this issue, and they have a right to be. Dictatorships should be criticized and condemned persistently, without truce. The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, said it better than most: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Action is the only remedy against indifference.”
This is why the images from Pope Benedict XVI’s recent trip to Cuba that show him clasping hands with Fidel Castro are shameful. By choosing that pose of solidarity and allowing it to be disseminated, the pope chose the side of the oppressors rather than the oppressed. As President Felipe Calderon of Mexico did during his recent visit to Havana, the pope refused to meet with the Ladies in White and other dissidents.
These choices were very offensive to the Cuban exile community in Miami. Every time world leaders make friendly visits to Havana, allow themselves to be photographed with a smiling Fidel or refuse to call the Castros “tyrants,” they confirm the convictions of Cuban-Americans and Cuban immigrants living in Miami that the world has turned its back on ordinary Cubans.
The city of Miami has an oddly transitory air: We are here, many Cubans seem to say, but only until Cuba is free. That sense of impermanence was reinforced by the arrival of Nicaraguans fleeing the Sandinistas, Colombians fleeing civil conflict, and Venezuelans fleeing Hugo Chavez. Every Latin American crisis means that more apartments are rented in Brickell and Miami Beach and more houses are rented in Hialeah and Kendall.
Miami is a haven, a place where people wait for change, and for wounds to heal, as they prepare to return home. But the Cuban exiles’ return has been postponed for more than half a century and there’s no end to their waiting in sight.
The Berlin Wall has been torn down; the Eastern bloc is no more; the Arab Spring has swept North Africa and the Middle East; but nothing has changed in Cuba. Any attempt at creating a more open climate, including online, meets with frustration.
The only option left to this community is to maintain, with dignity and strength, its opposition to the regime in Havana. And that means criticizing and condemning anyone who tries to hide or gloss over the Cuban tragedy.
Guillen begged to be forgiven — “on my knees” and “with my heart in my hands” — for having declared his love for Fidel. He can say whatever he wants: The First Amendment protects his right to do so. But words matter. The Marlins temporarily suspended him; Cubans, deep down, have already struck him out for life. He will never be accepted here.
My two sons have Cuban blood and I am proud of that heritage. But I’m haunted by the knowledge that if they had been born in Cuba, their lives would depend on the whims of those two old men. They couldn’t say the words “Down with communism,” like the man who was arrested for yelling that phrase during the pope’s Mass in Santiago, Cuba.
I am used to the Miami baptism and understand it perfectly. It draws a line between those who love liberty and those who lack the courage to call a dictator a dictator.
By Jorge Ramos Avalos
(April 16, 2012)