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DATELINE: MIAMI : Castro Obsession Still Sets Off Fiery Debate in South Florida

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As Fidel Castro begins his 37th year as Cuban president, expectations are lower than ever among Miami’s exile community that the gray-bearded leader’s rule is about to end. Only 14% of those questioned in a recent poll think he will fall from power this year.

But that does not mean Cuba or Castro has lost any incendiary power among Cuban Americans. From the streets of Miami’s Little Havana to the halls of the Florida Legislature in Tallahassee, the topic of Cuba and Castro remains emotional and preeminent.

“It’s time to go, Castro,” Sen. Jesse Helms shouted Monday to a crowd of 1,500 Cuban Americans who waved Cuban flags and homemade signs in support of the North Carolina Republican’s proposal to tighten the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

But it doesn’t take a visit from a prominent conservative or a raucous rally to keep Cuba in Miami’s headlines. In the last week alone, the Communist island 90 miles from Key West has been the focus of a proposed tourism tax that would raise $1.4 million a year for anti-Castro television ads, and an uproarious academic forum at the University of Florida in which three professors from Havana were urged to defect. They declined.

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In yet another Cuba-related controversy that threatens to boil over, the American Civil Liberties Union has charged Florida International University in Miami with attempting to block a speech Thursday by a young Cuban Communist leader by insisting that the sponsors come up with $3,000 for security. University officials said the appearance by Kenia Serrano Puig is likely to incite protests and possibly a riot, as occurred during a similar 1992 event.

In a letter to the university, the ACLU’s Benjamin S. Waxman said that demanding a security fee from the school’s Young Socialist Club was “just another way to censor free speech.” He threatened to sue.

In Greater Miami, where Cuban Americans represent the largest single ethnic group, love for Cuba and revulsion of Castro are oft-used yardsticks for measuring such issues as immigration, free speech and political ideology.

“Remember,” says Guillermo J. Grenier, a sociology professor at Florida International University, “Miami is the only place where a candidate for mayor has to have a foreign policy. The tourism tax proposal shows that you can still make a few bucks if you put your eggs in the anti-Castro basket. The Cuban obsession is still here.”

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That Cuban obsession led Rep. Luis Morse to tack the anti-Castro ad campaign onto a proposed one-cent restaurant tax that seemed to be doomed. Morse, a Miami Republican, suggested using 20% of tax revenues for a don’t-travel-to-Cuba campaign, to be waged primarily in Canada and Germany.

“Anyone who vehemently desires the freedom of Cuba ought to take every opportunity to educate the world about the sad Cuban reality,” explained Morse, who was wounded at the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

At least one Florida lawmaker--a non-Cuban--has had the temerity to say enough is enough. “The point is, this is America, folks. Let’s stop trying to topple Fidel Castro in these chambers,” Rep. Suzanne Jacobs said Tuesday, a day after the second-term Democrat from Delray Beach angered Cuban American lawmakers by refusing to sign a resolution honoring the Bay of Pigs veterans.

“I agree with every single thing (Cuban American lawmakers) are saying. But we are not here to talk about Cuba. And this goes on all the time. It’s extremely distracting,” Jacobs said.

Nonetheless, in South Florida the issue of Cuba is likely to endure.

Leonardo Rodriguez, a Florida International University vice president, describes Cuba as “a wound that continues to bleed” in the minds of many exiles.

While defending the American ideal of free speech and academic freedom, Rodriguez also says that for many Cuban-born U.S. residents, allowing representatives of the Castro government to speak here is blasphemous. “When you have husbands, brothers and sons executed or jailed for long years, you cannot help but react in a very visceral way to any type of presentation by that government.”


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