By Arian Campo-Flores | NEWSWEEK
Miami community leaders are taking a kinder, gentler approach to the Fidel Castro regime
A year and a half ago, Barreiros, 58, emigrated legally from the island (Cuba allows some to leave each year), landing in Miami with his wife and one of his sons. But his other son, Uslanier, had to stay behind, stripped of his exit permit by the government. The regime also deprived Uslanier, 16, of his ration card, leaving him to rely entirely on the $100 Barreiros sends every month for food.
GIVEN THAT EXPERIENCE, Barreiros would seem an easy recruit for the hard-line Cuban exile community in Miami that has fought to depose Castro for more than 40 years. But Barreiros doesn’t care to join that battle. “The only thing I care about is working and subsisting in life,” he says. He finds arguments for a strict embargo against Cuba baffling. If the embargo were dismantled, he reasons, the exchange of goods and ideas would set off “a subterranean wave that would build and build, and [Castro] would lose the country entirely.”
Barreiros is the fresh face of Miami’s Cuban community�more economic immigrant than political exile. He left loved ones behind and rejects U.S. policies that choke their livelihoods. He wants a transition to democracy that is peaceful rather than bellicose. Since the Mariel boat lift in 1980, hundreds of thousands of Cubans like Barreiros have arrived in south Florida. It’s been such a steady influx, says pollster Sergio Bendixen, that the Cuban immigrant community is now almost evenly split between those who came in the 1960s and ‘70s�who tend to favor tough policies�and those who came after.
As a result, Cuban-American views toward the island have moderated. Two independent polls of south Florida exiles that were released last month�and set Miami abuzz�confirm that evolution, showing, for instance, that majorities favor “forgiveness and reconciliation” and meetings between exiles and Cuban officials. In fact, a Cuban official visited Miami last month to encourage exiles to attend an April conference in Havana�the first time a member of Castro’s regime has ever paid such a courtesy call.
Those changes on the ground dovetail with new thinking among some Cuban-American leaders. They’re intent on presenting a more sober, pragmatic face than the hysterical recalcitrance portrayed by the media during the Elian Gonzalez episode. And they’ve concluded that the best way to gain sway in shaping Cuba’s future beyond Castro is to pursue dialogue with the island rather than confrontation. “The battle [for tough policies] in Washington is over,” says Joe Garcia, executive director of the formerly hard-line Cuban American National Foundation. “Now the front line is in Havana.”
That’s an earth-shattering statement, considering the foundation’s history. Started in 1981 by the legendary Jorge Mas Canosa, who for decades masterfully worked Washington’s levers of power, the foundation excelled at securing tough U.S. policies against Cuba. But by the time Mas Canosa died in 1997, Cuban-Americans increasingly questioned a strategy of confrontation that had failed to loosen Castro’s hold on power after nearly four decades. When Mas Canosa’s son, Jorge Mas Santos, took the helm, he wanted to reach out more to dissidents on the island.
Then Elian came ashore in 1999. Touched viscerally by his story, the exile community rallied to keep him in Miami�seemingly oblivious, in the eyes of much of mainstream America, to the impact of the combat on the psyche of a little boy. One day in the midst of the dispute, Mas Santos got a call from a friendly U.S. senator. “You guys need to do something,” the senator said. “I have never seen more hatred expressed toward the Cuban-American community.” The PR disaster prompted much soul-searching among exiles.
The foundation has emerged with a renewed focus. With Mas Santos and executive director Garcia�both 39�a new generation is in charge, eager to replenish the ranks of the fading old guard with young blood and newly arrived Cubans like Barreiros. Once non-negotiable issues, like the return of property confiscated by Castro, are no longer atop their agenda. What matters is connecting with opposition on the island and fortifying it. The foundation, says Garcia, maintains covert contact with generals and civilians in the regime, and sends things like literature, technical equipment and financial aid to dissidents of all stripes.