Diary

David Rieff

In most parts of the United States, even those voters who could be numbered among Ronald Reagan’s most enthusiastic supporters removed the ‘Reagan-Bush ’84’ bumper-stickers from their cars fairly soon after the 1984 Election was safely in the bag. No one thought the things were supposed to adorn the family automobile in perpetuity in the way that Saint Christopher medals adorned the dashboards of Catholic drivers all over America in the simpler days before Vatican II. Things are different in Miami, though. There, almost three years after the Reagan victory, a significant number of cars in the Cuban-American sections of Dade County (and to refer to ‘Cuban’ Miami is, in 1987, all but redundant – the city proper is well over 70 per cent Cuban, while the rest of the county teeters around the 50 per cent mark) seem to sport at least one of these iconic references.

That these luxuriant bumper-stickers are expressions of the anti-Communist fervour that is the all but universal common denominator of the Cuban exile community in the United States is immediately apparent to any visitor to Miami. For the obdurate sceptic, however, there are slogans which are even more explicit. It was only in South Florida, I believe, that Republican Party campaign workers took to distributing bumper-stickers which read – in Spanish, of course: ‘Liberty versus Communism; Reagan-Bush ’84.’ And even today, whatever people may think in other regions of the United States, Miami remains unrepentantly, exuberantly Reagan country. Indeed, what is most remarkable about Cuban Miami is that here may be found the staunchest of the right-wing true believers. During the Goldwater campaign of 1964, journalists agreed that the prototypical right-wing activist was a little old lady in tennis shoes from Orange County, California. A lot of those little old ladies are dead now, their daughters and younger sisters less avid in the cause, and, today, once-WASP Orange County is full of poor Vietnamese refugees doing piecework in local sweatshops. The little old lady’s place has been taken by a middle-aged Cuban-American man who probably has a business, lives in Dade County, and drives a car with a ‘Reagan-Bush’ sticker on it.

Though it may well have been inevitable, the change in the political make-up of South Florida is dramatic. In 1968, for example, the voters of Dade County went pretty solidly for Hubert Humphrey, even as the rest of the State was presenting third-party candidate George Wallace with one of his more unsettling victories. To be sure, even then the Cuban-American population in Miami was enormous, but it was, as yet, politically unfocused. Many Cubans who would later launch themselves into Florida politics still believed that it was only a matter of time before the Castro regime fell and they could return to the island; many more were simply involved with establishing their businesses or obtaining accreditation in various professions; a few were becoming involved in the drug trade which has done so much to get the economy of South Florida into the splendid shape it’s in today.

The result of the failure of Cubans to vote in anything like their true strength led to the misperception in the rest of the United States that Miami was and would remain a liberal, Democratic and largely Jewish enclave at the southern end of what was, otherwise, an overwhelmingly conservative (not to say racist and reactionary) State whose politics were barely distinguishable from those of neighbouring Georgia and Alabama. It is, of course, scarcely the case that North Florida grew more liberal over the past twenty years. Rather, the Cuban-American community finally seemed to realise that as long as Castro was alive their chances of returning to the island were nil. The result was that they began to turn their considerable energies, money and talent both to local politics (the mayors of Miami and of Dade County are now Cuban), and, on a national level, to the politics of militant anti-Communism. No one can be elected from South Florida who is not willing to make frequent denunciations of the Castro regime and certainly no one who opposed aid to the Nicaraguan Contras would rate his chances of victory very high. And as the Cuban hegemony over both local business and local politics has begun to solidify, Miami has begun to acquire the feel of a great Latin American capital, so much so that it has become the favourite holiday spot (and second residence) for an enormous number of affluent South and Central Americans.

The local ‘Anglos’, as the non-Hispanic, white Miamians are called rather disdainfully by everyone including themselves, seem to be steadily moving away. Some leave because, allegedly, they can’t stand the reactionary character of Miami today. Others, more forthrightly perhaps, admit that they simply feel overwhelmed by the influx of Cubans. There are many bitter jokes of the order of ‘will the last American to leave South Florida please bring the flag?’ But of course this is not quite accurate. The flags one sees fluttering noisily over the car dealerships and shopping malls of Miami are twice and even three times as large as those one customarily sees in other parts of the country. Miamians seem to be constantly both literally and metaphorically saluting the flag even if most of the time they are doing so in Spanish. ‘Viva los Estados Unidos,’ the announcers repeat on the Spanish-language stations which dominate the AM frequencies in South Florida. ‘Viva Reagan.’

This patriotism often seems as hypertrophied as the flags themselves. Last year, on the anniversary of the invasion of Grenada, a group of Cuban-American businessmen organised a commemorative celebration. At 5.30 in the afternoon of the day in question, people in Miami were asked to honk their horns. In some parts of the city the noise was overpowering. One mocks the victory of seven thousand American soldiers over a few hundred Cuban paramilitary construction workers with some caution in Miami these days. Any place of exile is fanatical, but because Miami is not just home to a few exiles, but a second version of the lost country, these extremes have a different political significance.

Despite the fact that, by Western European standards, American politics already take place almost exclusively on the right, there is some shifting of ground. And it is odd to stumble on the last city which remains faithful to Ronald Reagan at the precise moment when the rest of the country seems about ready to wash its hands of him. In retrospect, the Administration could, somehow, paper over the budget deficit and the disaster in Lebanon, the trade deficit and the bumbling fiasco that was Reykjavik, but when it turned out that it had truckled to the Ayatollah Khomeini the party was over. The cartoonist Jules Feiffer had it just about right when, early in the scandal, he pictured an American sitting in front of his television set and conducting a dialogue with President Reagan. ‘I was with you over Lebanon,’ the man says, ‘and over Grenada, and over Libya.’ Then, with mounting fury, he begins to shout: ‘But Iran, Iran, Iran.’ Then, calming down, he remarks: ‘Bye, Ron.’

Or, at least, this is the way things look in most of the United States, where the detestation of the Iranians is genuine and, conversely, enthusiasm for the Contras superficial at best, despite the efforts both of the Administration and of a slew of neo-conservative political-action committees. Even when Congress approved aid to the Contras, it did so by the slimmest of margins. In Miami, the situation is entirely reversed. For most Cuban-Americans, the Contras are the most important cause in the world. The Ayatollah pales by comparison. For most Cuban-Americans, the question of whether or not the law was broken is quite irrelevant. Miami Cubans may be patriots but they are only intermittently democrats. Their overriding interest is what they view as the hemispheric struggle against Communism. In this context, no event, not even Grenada, is insignificant.

Nicaragua is thus a heaven-sent opportunity for Cuban-Americans to re-fight the Cuban revolution with the Sandinistas standing in for Castro. This identification does much to account for the enthusiasm Miami Cubans show for a cause which even its proponents admit has little chance of success. Cuban-Americans have raised millions of dollars for the Contras: indeed, the Spanish-language radio stations regularly broadcast appeals for money, blankets, food, and even blood. Much has been written about the CIA’s involvement in running the insurgency, but there is little doubt that there are several dozen ‘freelance’ Cuban-American mercenaries fighting in Nicaragua. More significantly, a fairly large number of Cuban-American doctors regularly travel to the Contra base-camps along the Honduran-Nicaraguan border to tend to the wounded.

Indeed, since the fall of Somoza, Miami has become the Contras’s rear-echelon. Although the official headquarters of the UNO (the political ‘umbrella’ organisation which includes most of the Contras) is in San Jose, Costa Rica, everyone knows that all the real decisions are made in Miami. It is from Miami that materel is trans-shipped to the front lines. There are now about a hundred thousand Nicaraguans living in Miami. The city is practically home ground for them. In the words of Arturo Cruz, Miami is ‘a little bit of Nicaragua’. The refugees themselves range from Contra fighters, to immigrants who have come in search of work, to members of the Somoza family. Many hospitals in Miami are caring for soldiers wounded in the fighting, their fees paid for by donations from the Cuban-American community. All this is done quite openly, even proudly. Not only do Miami Cubans seem to regard their efforts as something of a patriotic duty, but prestige accrues to those who participate. But while it is no doubt pleasant to see one’s name in the Spanish-language press, the real goad is Fidel Castro. Phil Rodriguez, a doctor who has long been active in the medical effort, seemed to speak for many of his comrades when he remarked that he attributed his activism to the fact that ‘I wasn’t able to do anything to change things in Cuba.’

At first sight, the effort appears spontaneous. But the civilian effort undertaken by the Cuban-American community is bound up with the efforts of the US Government, particularly the Miami Station of the CIA. It was the Miami Station which oversaw the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. Many of the most influential Cuban Miamians are veterans of the Bay of Pigs. Jorge Mas Canosa, whose Cuban-American Foundation has lobbied in Washington for Contra aid, is one such veteran; Carlos Perez, who has set up a foundation to help Colonel Oliver North with his legal expenses, is another. We have the hapless Eugene Hasenfus to thank for confirming the participation of Cuban-American CIA men in the Contra re-supply. Hasenfus, who had worked in Indochina for the CIA-owned Air America, testified at his trial in Nicaragua that the operation was run out of the Ilopango air force base in El Salvador and was directed by Max Gomez, a Bay of Pigs veteran whose real name is Felix Rodriguez, and Ramon Medina, a Bay of Pigs veteran whose real name is Luis Posada Carriles. Other crewmen who flew out of Ilopango have identified a third Bay of Pigs veteran, Rafael Quintero, as being the intermediary between Contra commanders in the field and the pilots in El Salvador. All these men have worked for the CIA on and off ever since the Bay of Pigs. If they were freelancing, or even working on an operation sanctioned only by North, it would, it seems, be the first time they had done so. In fact, the story that these ‘patriots’ (Vice-President Bush’s word for Rodriguez – perhaps it was a job description) were on their own is ridiculous.

In Miami, people like to think of Rodriguez, Posada and Quintero as dedicated anti-Communists. In Washington, they are called counter-insurgency experts. Terrorists is closer to the mark. Felix Rodriguez was commissioned into the US Army after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. During the mid-Sixties he participated in numerous secret attacks against Cuba. He is rumoured to have served in the Congo. In 1967, Rodriguez was part of the US Special Forces team which hunted down Che Guevara. Some people in Miami say Rodriguez is the man who actually killed Che. In the early Seventies, Rodriguez worked for Air America in South Vietnam. Later, he became an arms-broker in Miami, and, for several years, an adviser to the Argentine military. In what, one wonders? In 1984, Rodriguez went to El Salvador, ostensibly to train helicopter crews in tactics. The next year, he was, according to Hasenfus, directing the Contra resupply campaign, repeatedly claiming that he was working under the aegis of the Vice-President.

Quintero is said to have worked for the CIA both in Latin America and in Africa. Luis Posada is an explosives expert who formerly held a commission in the US Army. Like Rodriguez, he participated in many anti-Castro operations in the Sixties. In the early Seventies, he served as a counter-insurgency adviser to the Venezuelan Army, and, later, as chief of operations of the Venezuelan national police. In 1976, Posada, along with a Miami pediatrician called Orlando Bosch and a drug dealer and gun-runner named Ricardo ‘Monkey’ Morales, set a bomb on the regular Cuban airline flight between Caracas and Havana. All 73 people aboard were killed. Escaping from a Venezuelan jail, Posada made his way to Miami before heading back to El Salvador. It seems clear that Posada, Rodriguez and Quintero were running Contra supply operations for North. The line between the private activities of anti-Communist Cuban-Americans and those of the CIA seems harder and harder to distinguish.

In any case, these men are heroes in Miami. A few years ago, Orlando Bosch went on a hunger strike in his Venezuelan jail cell. To mark the occasion, the Miami City Commission declared the date ‘Orlando Bosch Day’. The latest Miami hero is North himself. It is no accident that when White House Communications Director Patrick Buchanan wanted to defend him he went to Miami to do so. Appearing before a Cuban audience, he excoriated critics of the covert aid to the Contras as traitors. There is today no other city in America in which Buchanan could have made such a speech and received so warm a welcome. In this sense at least, the Administration seems very much in sync with Miami’s Cuban-Americans. Both are persuaded that democracy and the exercise of power are mutually exclusive; both are addicted to the use of force; both are wantonly ignorant of history and of diplomacy.

But there is a slightly bruised, aggrieved air about Miami today – the same atmosphere, in fact, which reigns in the neo-conservative think tanks and in the White House. Reagan’s hold on the public, and on the media which gave him the most extraordinary free ride any American President has enjoyed since John Kennedy, is waning. Doubtless, Ronald Reagan will serve out his term and more Nicaraguans will be slaughtered. The latest attempt of a Republican Administration to subvert the Constitution of the United States, however, seems to have run its course. After Watergate and Iranscam, it is hard not to feel that these tendencies are endemic to much thinking on the American right. Unfortunately, by the look of things in Miami, there will be no shortage of eager Cuban-Americans ready to do these dirty jobs the next time the cowboys take over. After all, if Luis Posada is getting a little long in the tooth, Rafael Quintero is only in his forties.