The grenade went off as we were breasting the pampas. There was a bonfire of smoke, threatening to obscure the humid prairie of the Everglades laid out beneath us, and an incongruous whiff, like the smell of the stuff you dip mosquito nets in. We had successfully taken the high ground, or so we thought, and seized command of the field of sweet potatoes which stretched almost to the horizon. The Vietnam vet at my elbow reacted exactly as you would have expected a man of his experience to, and shimmered into the undergrowth. On the face of it, the grenade was a pretty substantial reverse for him. He had just been explaining how we were essentially bossing the entire situation. Now we were cut off from each other by a piece of ordnance which, you couldn’t help noticing, had dropped right down our throats. On the other hand, as I heard him mutter, it was only a smoke grenade. And, when all was said and done, he had let the thing off himself.
We were on weekend manoeuvres with Alpha 66, a volunteer commando dedicated to the overthrow of Fidel Castro, by violent means if at all possible. A cursory examination showed that there was nothing surprising about them shooting themselves in the foot – or grenading it, rather. Their record was: 105 volunteers lost in missions against revolutionary Cuba; no Cubans. But the Vietnam vet had known exactly what he was doing. He was putting the patrol to the test, just as we were within a few hundred metres of regaining base. I came through the stunt well enough to justify the award of an honorary sleeve-patch worked with the Alpha 66 motto (‘Death before Slavery’), bolting through the grass before the smoke could disturb the idling alligators and baked snakes who lived there. I couldn’t say the same for all of the unit. At least one of them, by day a plump hospital orderly, went to ground for long minutes, popping out of the flora apparently at random into the path of a jeep full of bird hunters. The Vietnam vet bit his tongue. ‘You can’t push these guys as hard as you would in the service,’ he told me. His experience in the service had included tours of duty in Cambodia: ‘We weren’t supposed to be there but we were.’ He had subsequently turned down $15,000 a week to go to South America as an ‘adviser’. ‘I asked them how was I going to get out if it got hot and they had no answer.’ He was a sniping specialist. As we walked down lines of potato tops as formal as columns of 18th-century infantrymen, he explained that the trick to halting the progress of troops across open ground like this was to shoot one of them in the leg. ‘He goes down making a commotion and the others are thinking to themselves, “We can’t leave him,” but waiting for someone else to go back for him. It’s cruel but it works.’ His name was Carlos Iglesias. At my suggestion that he might be related to the swoon-making crooner of the same name, himself a resident of South Florida, Carlos said: ‘I once heard him say that he had family in the same part of Spain that my people came from.’ There was perhaps a familial likeness in Carlos’s surprisingly bovine eyelashes.
Only a dozen men had turned up for the exercises. Alpha 66 claimed to have fifteen thousand men willing to bear arms, but many of the volunteers in Dade County had to work weekends. Most of them, like Iglesias, were first or second generation Cubans ‘in exile’, though my patrol included a Puerto Rican who had come along, he said, because he supported the cause. Despite the closeness of the day, he insisted on wearing a woollen balaclava, in case my snaps betrayed his identity to his employers in the mall security industry. Alpha 66 was widely thought to have been the inspiration for the nutty extremists, Las Noches de Diciembre, who frequent the Everglades in Tourist Season, one of the crime novels by the Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen.
The real-life commandos’ camp, Rumbosur, ‘Pointing South’, lay a forty-minute drive out of the city, beside an orange orchard at the end of a swamp turnpike. The real estate was rented from a sympathiser, for a peppercorn dollar a month. There was a little clapboard house, with hurricane lamps and a couple of daybeds, and a room with a single dumbbell in it – ‘the gym’. Outside, a Cuban flag, various weathered assault-course obstacles and a collection of foxed motorboats made the camp look like a military base in Cuba itself.
One of the founders of Alpha 66, 76-year-old Andres Nasario Sargen, had driven me out to the camp in his small Ford. We had set out from Alpha 66’s office in the heart of Cuban Miami accompanied by two of Nasario’s fellow volunteers, including a man named Enrique Acosta who, ironically, sported a Che Guevara beard and beret. Nasario told me that he had been a comrade-in-arms of Castro’s against the Batista dictatorship. But he hadn’t liked the way things were going under Castro, and had fled with others to the United States in the early Sixties, where they spent months in detention as illegal immigrants. Nasario was short and leathery, like an old jockey. Clipping his nails over a copy of American Rifleman in the Rumbosur living quarters, he told me that the organisation depended for funds on donations from its sponsor-base of 40,000 supporters across the United States. Far from receiving backing – overt or otherwise – from the federal government, Nasario claimed they would be in trouble with the FBI if its agents caught them letting off live ammunition outside their compound. He said that ‘one guy who tried to start his own group was set up by the authorities. He was offered a heat-seeking missile for $15,000, to see if he would take the bait. He should have known there was something wrong. They’re usually a quarter of a million bucks.’
Alpha 66 wanted you to know that even stronger measures than heat-seeking missiles were required to dispose of Castro. Nasario compared him to Emperor Hirohito of Japan, obstinately refusing to accept that his cause had failed even after the bomb was dropped. ‘Fidel needs at least ten bombs,’ he snorted. But the members of Alpha 66 were not terrorists, Nasario insisted. ‘No me gusta la guerra,’ he said – I don’t like war. He denied any connection with the blowing up of a Cuban airliner over Barbados in 1976, with which Alpha 66 has sometimes been linked. ‘When anything happens, they blame us.’
Having given up on the idea of another American-backed invasion after the Bay of Pigs, the commando was holding itself in readiness to support an uprising within Cuba. Nasario and the others talked about secret cells on the island. They had supplied contacts in their homeland with Alpha 66 pennants, which had defiantly, if briefly, flown under the noses of the authorities. A related organisation called ‘The Sons of the Widows’, which had the ring of Hiaasen’s Las Noches de Diciembre, had carried out illegal bill-sticking. Enrique Acosta, the Che look-alike, said he had been part of a cell in Cuba. ‘We used to go out after dark and burn down sugar-cane,’ he said. This recalled possibly apocryphal stories from the time of the revolution, of oil-soaked cats being set on fire and taking off through plantations, setting them alight. Alpha 66 confined its own military operations to occasional sorties against outlying Cuban territory such as Cayo Coco, where the Cuban coastguard apparently returned its fire in spades, and to shooting out a few beachfront windows on the tourist strip of Varadero.
Carlos Iglesias, who was approached to join the movement – with who knows what bashful hero-worship – on account of his specialist firearms knowledge, disembowelled the firing mechanism of a machine-gun on a bench. He was like a babalao, a priest of Cuban santería or voodoo, preparing a sacrifice for a fiesta.
I suspect that I was less at risk from the itchy, butter-fingered weekend warriors, as they were sometimes unflatteringly referred to in Florida, than I was from Miami’s cabbies. I opted for taxis over a hire car on the calculation that I’d meet more Cubans that way. But also because I thought I’d avoid driving blindly into neighbourhoods that I’d be well advised to steer clear of. Miami has an unfortunate reputation as a graveyard of unwary out-of-towners, and not even the locals are safe. While I was visiting, the Miami Herald reported on the trial of a man who pursued a basketball teammate by car and shot the man dead for jostling him on court.
To a considerable extent, my plan succeeded. I met more Cubans. And I avoided driving blindly into neighbourhoods that I’d have been well advised to steer clear of. On the other hand my cabbies didn’t. Caleb, from Haiti, and his countryman Jean-Bertrand, my first two drivers, made unerringly for the shadows beneath the Miami River flyovers, where tumbleweeds of refuse blew. This trash was pathetic and unsettling: the unwanted contents of valises and grips and pocketbooks, which were themselves often to be found discarded nearby. I know this because the unfazed Haitians toured these blocks at speeds which could only be considered breakneck by someone watching expectantly in the darkness with a length of rope cats-cradled around his fingers. To be fair to Caleb and Jean-Bertrand, they were on to something, since my hotel turned out to be situated in this district, though they were as surprised as I was when we found this out. It was in one of the neighbourhoods that I would have been well advised to steer clear of. In the days to come, cabbies who had not had the benefit of a Port-au-Prince upbringing would clunk their door-locks down as they approached my address on South River Drive. ‘Why are you living in this dross?’ one demanded. The reason was that I wanted to live where the Cubans of Miami lived, and this was the closest hotel that I could find. Affectingly preserved as a historic building barely a hundred years after it had been hammered together, it stood behind a stockade of metal railings and locked gates. It abutted a shabby waterfront, where pelicans in repose looked like folded umbrellas, a hooter sounded when the bridge was raised, and children played in a park named after José Martí, the great Cuban patriot. The hotel was on the border of Little Havana and downtown. Before you reached the Celebrity Cruises towerblock, or the offices of Breast Clinics of Miami, you had to drive down Eighth Street, Calle Ocho, where the old boys gnawed on stogies the size of French sticks in Domino Park. Before you took the bridge for South Beach and Liquid, the nightclub newly opened by Madonna’s latest gal-pal, you passed the mom and pop businesses which harked back to a country unseen for thirty-five years: the Camaguey grocery store, the coin-washes and cantinas named after Havana streets.
A painted gable-end welcomed you to Little Havana on behalf of the Republic National Bank, the biggest Hispanic bank in the United States. Its guiding force has been Luís Botifoll, now 87, who left Cuba in 1960. Over the years, he has steered a lot of money Alpha 66’s way. But when you asked who else the Republic National has bankrolled, Botifoll waved his hand and said: ‘Everybody. From presidents down.’ Like Alpha 66, the bank is implacably opposed to talking to Castro – the hackle-raising diálogo – and staunch in its support of the American trade embargo. It shares with the Cuban-American National Foundation, the largest anti-Castro lobby in the States, a hurt perplexity over Europe’s comparatively easy-going attitude to the Cuban regime. ‘I remember when there was apartheid in South Africa, there was a lot of concern about that,’ said Ninoska Pérez Castellón, who has a talk show on the Foundation’s radio station. ‘There is apartheid in my country. You have to have dollars to buy anything but the people aren’t paid in dollars.’ The Foundation’s figurehead, Jorge Mas Canosa, is Little Havana’s choice for next president of Cuba.
A poster in Ninoska’s studio showed the pastel houses on the Malecón, the seafront of the real Havana, festooned with logos for Burger King and Taco Bell. Was this a rare, unsentimental picture of what the Foundation imagined post-Castro? No, this was a positive view, Ninoska insisted. The artwork promoted a record by the Cuban singer Willy Chirino. He figures in Next Year in Cuba, an account by Gustavo Pérez Firmat of the contradictions of his Cuban childhood and his adult experiences in America. His book articulates an increasing if sometimes guilty drawing away by younger Cubans from their ancestral homeland. A poll for a Miami TV station last month found a greater number of them than ever before consider themselves ‘Cuban-Americans’ rather than ‘exiles’. Other surveys indicate that the citizens of Little Havana as a whole are more likely to visit Cuba after Castro’s exit than they are to relocate there permanently.