Cuban exiles' views shifting

Times Staff Writers

Amilcar Yera, the owner of a Cuban restaurant that dishes out onion-slathered steaks and thick fried plantains to a discerning exile clientele, yearns for a day when Fidel Castro is dead and democracy sprouts anew on the island that still consumes his imagination.

But Yera, who escaped communist Cuba a decade ago after marrying a German tourist, said he could no longer tolerate a U.S. government policy that starved the island of American visitors, trade and investments in hope of sparking a revolt.

"I don't think of the people there as pawns for us to play with," Yera, 32, said in Spanish as his eyes welled with tears. "They include my parents. They include my sister. I truly feel for them. I don't want to hurt the Cuban government if it's going to hurt them."

Even before Castro resigned as president last week after nearly half a century of dictatorial rule, a slow but sweeping shift in Cuban American attitudes was already evident here -- one with profound ramifications for U.S.-Cuba relations.

Many Cuban Americans are growing weary of the U.S. government's attempts to isolate Cuba, a hard-line stance that militant Cuban exiles have largely dictated for the last four decades, and has yet to yield any real changes there.

Instead, Cuban Americans increasingly favor a post-Cold War policy that tries to foment democracy by freeing up travel to the island and defrosting diplomatic relations with its leaders.

"Why are we pursuing a policy with Cuba that has not worked anywhere in the world?" said Carlos A. Saladrigas, a prominent Miami businessman. He co-founded an organization called the Cuba Study Group that's trying to convince Washington that a "silent majority" of Cuban Americans favor a more moderate path.

Florida International University, which has been polling Cuban American attitudes here since 1991, found last year that nearly two-thirds want a dialogue with the Cuban government, compared with 40% when the poll started 16 years ago. More than 55% supported unrestricted travel to Cuba.

Though most Cuban Americans still back the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba, support is steadily shrinking. The university survey found that 57.5% wanted to continue the embargo, the lowest number since the poll began.

The changing views are playing out in congressional contests in South Florida, where two Cuban American Democrats are challenging the Republican Diaz-Balart brothers, scions of a powerful and strongly anti-Castro exile family, who have helped craft U.S. Cuba policy for years.

The changes were also apparent in last week's Democratic presidential debate, where Sen. Barack Obama said he would meet Castro's successor as president, his brother Raul, "without preconditions." His pledge, which was quickly criticized by GOP front-runner Sen. John McCain, raised eyebrows in Miami, where it would have been political suicide a decade ago.

The reason for the shift is simple, experts say: These are not the Miami Cubans of yesteryear.

The political exiles who left Cuba after Castro's revolution triumphed in 1959 -- bringing with them a boundless hatred for the dictator that was stoked by painful memories of confiscated homes and slain relatives -- are dying off. They now make up less than 10% of South Florida's 800,000 residents of Cuban descent.

About 125,000 Cuban refugees sailed to Florida in 1980 after an economically strapped Cuban government opened its borders, triggering the Mariel boatlift. An additional 250,000 have come with legal visas since 1994, when another rafters' crisis spurred Washington and Havana to sign an orderly-migration accord.

Newer arrivals largely left Cuba for economic rather than political reasons, and still have friends and family there. Most deeply resent a 2004 tightening of sanctions that limits their Cuba visits to once every three years without exception.

Yera said he grew up as a peasant in central Cuba -- his family had no electricity, and cooked meals with firewood -- before moving to the city of Santa Clara. At a hotel there he came to know foreign tourists who changed his outlook forever.

"From childhood I was raised to think the U.S. was the enemy," he said. "But I began to see there was another world out there, and after that they could not hold me back."

Yera divorced the German woman and is now married to an artist named Daymis, a recent Cuban immigrant like him.

He recently sold his first business, a gas station, and used the profits to buy his wife a small art gallery, as well as to purchase his restaurant, Ay Mama Ines, which is named for a mythical Afro-Cuban free spirit with an ever-present stogie and coffee.

But his parents, Carlys and Rafael, are stuck in Cuba along with his sister, Yuditza, and that haunts him.

Proponents of change, who include many U.S.-born children of exiles, argue that allowing recent Cuban arrivals to regularly visit relatives -- just 90 miles across the Florida Straits -- would better promote the virtues of freedom.

Harder-line anti-Castro exiles insist that their ideas still make sense.

Ninoska Perez, a radio personality and proponent of a hard-line Cuba policy, argues that surveys suggesting a shift in attitudes fail to convey a critical point: Many newer Cuban immigrants don't vote.

"I'm tired of seeing these polls saying that the exiles have changed," Perez said. "The real poll is the elections, and so far, we have not seen any big changes there."

Perez is a former spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation, a powerful exile group that championed tightened sanctions against Cuba. When it became more moderate, she helped launch a splinter organization, the Cuban Liberty Council.

Joe Garcia was also part of the foundation, but the former executive director parted ways for different reasons, among them: He felt that limits on family visits were "a violation of the most basic of family values."

"People are forced to decide between breaking the law and visiting their dying mothers," he said. A Democrat, he is now running against Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who supports the travel limits.

Havana-born Lincoln Diaz-Balart also is getting his first serious challenge in more than 15 years in Congress, from Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, born in Santiago de Cuba.

Leery of making the election a referendum on the Diaz- Balart brothers' desire to overthrow Castro's government, their challengers are instead arguing that the brothers have spent too much time on failed Cuba policy, neglecting every other issue.

Yera believes many recent Cuban immigrants are too scarred by their experiences in communist Cuba to participate in U.S. politics. But he predicted the day would come when they spoke up and forced politicians to listen.

"At some point, those old men who sit outside Versailles will have to admit they were wrong," he said, mentioning the restaurant in Little Havana that has long served as the epicenter of the earlier exiles.

"This is the time to try something different," he added, knocking his knuckles on one of his restaurant's tables.

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