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L.A.'s Cubans Ambivalent and Cautious About Prison Revolt

Times Staff Writer

Raul Revilla came to the United States seven years ago in the boat lift from the Cuban port of Mariel. He figures he probably rubbed shoulders with some of the same prisoners in Atlanta now making daily headlines around the world.

Today, Revilla, 72, is an opinion maker, the managing editor of La Voz Libre, one of two Cuban community newspapers in Los Angeles. It wasn’t easy getting there, overcoming the stigma that all Marielitos carry, and the last thing he needed were the prison riots. They have, in fact, left him all but speechless.

“It’s a very delicate situation. I will have to wait for the reactions of the U.S. government and the Cuban leaders in Miami before I write about it,” Revilla, who was a lawyer in Cuba, said the other day, a week after the jail takeovers.

Revilla’s weekly edition hit the streets the next day. Top story: “Spain Remembers Franco.”

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La Voz Libre is not alone in its silence; its competitor, 20 de Mayo, has yet to write about the Marielito uprising in two Southern prisons, either.

The reticence of the local Cuban press underscores the anxiety and, in some cases, ambivalence that the prison riots have created in the growing Cuban community here, which for three decades has been quietly easing its way into the mainstream of the city’s life.

An estimated 120,000 Cubans live in or around Los Angeles in a tightly knit community with its own clubs, markets and restaurants. Most are clustered in Echo Park and Silver Lake, and in smaller enclaves in Culver City, Long Beach, Inglewood, South Gate and Glendale.

It is a diverse community, ranging from businessmen to blue-collar workers, artists and intellectuals, most of whom emigrated in the early 1960s. Many are active in a wide variety of political organizations seeking change in their native country, ranging from the liberal Abdala, whose members believe in the possibility of reform from within Cuba’s communist system, to the right wing Alpha 66.

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While many “old guard” Cubans have not hesitated in helping the Marielitos, trust and acceptance have been harder to come by. Some are embarrassed by a minority of the new arrivals, some of whom were mental patients and common criminals back home and others who have been linked by authorities to a wave of violent crime here.

About 12,000 of those who came in the Mariel boat lift ended up in Southern California. Many sought refuge in dingy flophouses off MacArthur Park, places like the Alvarado Hotel, which witnessed three murders in the first year after the Marielitos’ arrival.

The established Cuban community, its reputation at stake, reacted swiftly. 20 de Mayo Editor and Publisher Abel Perez created the Cuban Assistance League and housed it at his newspaper. With the support of Cuban businesses, the organization helped more than 6,000 Marielitos with job referrals, clothes and free meals. Homeless Marielitos still sleep on the doorsteps of Perez’s newspaper.

The jail riots “are not the Marielitos’ fault,” said Perez, talking in his office. “They would rather stay in jail than return to Cuba. The U.S. government made a mistake in putting all the Cubans in the same jail; that was the fuse. And when the deportations were announced, the powder keg exploded.”

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His newspaper, however, has not voiced such sentiments in support of the jailed Marielitos. “We can’t alienate readers from either side of the issue,” he said.

After work, Perez meets friends over a glass of wine in the Madrid restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, a focal point for the Cuban community in Echo Park. Joining him are artist and writer Jorge Rodriguez, a Marielito, and Laurencio Lopez, the former owner of the restaurant, who served the Marielitos free meals for more than two months.

After talking about sports and the supposed sins of Cuban President Fidel Castro, the conversation turns briefly to the jailed Marielitos.

“They are assassins, criminals, no doubt,” Lopez said. “The government here has been very benevolent. I would put them all in a boat and dump ‘em near Cuba, so those who can swim can get back, and the rest can drown.” Rodriguez listened without saying a word.

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Later that evening, now alone with his wife, who joins him for dinner, Rodriguez spoke up: “It’s not fair. Many of the jailed Marielitos have served out their sentences and have waited seven years for justice. They have paid their debt with society. . . . Going back to Cuba is worse than the electric chair--it’s the ultimate failure and humiliation for those who vowed never to return to enslaved Cuba. “I can’t understand why (President Reagan) would negotiate with ‘the devil,’ Castro, the lives of 2,000 proven anti-communists.”

A little later, two homeless Marielitos drop in for a cup of Cuban espresso. After politely saluting the regulars, outside, a safe distance from curious listeners, the two indigents speak their minds.

“If I were in jail, I’d do the same thing,” said Dagoberto Sanchez.

“They came here with an idea, and they’re not going back,” agreed Roberto Hernandez. “At least in the jails here they give you sandwiches.” Both complain about the stigma placed on the Marielitos and say they are denied jobs when people find out who they are.

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The sense of rejection and mistrust comes as well from other Cubans.

“There’s definitely a tension, a gap, between the Marielitos, who were raised and educated in Castro’s Cuba, and the old guard, who never lived under communism,” said Ed Gomez, who works in a private clinic as an administrative assistant. “Just because we’re Marielitos, we’re called communists and marginalized in the political organizations. It’s like our opinions don’t count.”

According to Rodriguez, the tension originated when Cuban sponsors felt that the Marielitos they helped out of resettlement camps did not live up to their expectations.

“But they don’t understand that it’s not easy to make a transition from communism to capitalism,” he said. “Many Marielitos were used to being paid without working and stealing goods that were out of reach in the closed Cuban market. They needed real help, not just handouts.”

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Hernandez Cuellar, editor of a new Spanish-language weekly, Okey L.A., noted that he was patronized by the Cuban establishment when he emigrated in 1983. “They wanted to tell how Cuba was, but I lived there all my life; I wanted to learn about the United States. What I found out was that most of them knew nothing about Cuba or the United States.”

“It does take me some time to trust a Marielito,” acknowledged Perez of 20 de Mayo. Like most Cubans, he is convinced that Castro included in the freedom flotilla criminals, mental defectives and communist infiltrators with the purpose of tarnishing the image of the Cuban community in the United States, as well as creating the belief that only undesirables want to leave Cuba.

If so, Castro has had some success. Marielitos do commit a disproportionate number of violent crimes, compared to any other social group, said Manny Mota, a Cuban-American officer in the Los Angeles police gang unit assigned to the immigrants from Mariel.

“They are the worst, and they are responsible for giving the Cuban community a terrible reputation,” he said.

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He and his partner have combined in arresting eight Marielito murder suspects this year alone, and 17 more are in his wanted book. The detectives do not have statistics on convictions, however.

A minority within a minority, mistrusted by fellow Cubans and feared by some Americans, the Marielitos face an uphill battle in their bid for assimilation.

Revilla knows this well. So well in fact that it took him almost two weeks to begin writing his editorial on the Marielito uprising, which will appear later this week. And even then, he was as cautious as a government spokesman.

“I had to wait and see the projections on the case, the different points of view to do justice to this sensitive matter,” he said. "(U.S. Atty. Gen. Edwin) Meese said recently that each case should be considered individually, and the Cuban leaders in Miami have asked that each case be considered carefully . . . my editorial will say that each individual case should receive careful consideration.”

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